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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)

*

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 2016: Day One Preview, Trends, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2016: Day One Preview, Trends, Tips

At last, the chattering, opining and hearsay can stop. The time for actions, which speak louder than words, is upon us. Day 1, Tuesday, at the Cheltenham Festival is a sporting event awaited by keen turfists like no other and, with the hype seeping into every recess this year, we are mercifully close to quenching our collective thirst for top class competition. Let battle commence!

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle Preview

I previewed the Supreme Novices' on 8th March, confidently nominating Yorkhill as a value play at 6/1 non-runner no bet (NRNB). Sadly, his trainer - who had other options, including favourite, Min - decided to withdraw him from this race. Although those who followed me in get their money back, we miss out on a genuine winning chance at a decent price. Onwards.

Min remains the strong favourite, with the noises emerging from his home base of a hopeful rather than expectant nature. He is no Douvan, on reputation at least, and nor has he done as much on the track thus far. Further, he'll have to curb his youthful enthusiasm if he is to finish as effervescently as many expect him to start.

The pack is deep, and headed by a pair of domestic aspirants from Nicky Henderson's Lambourn stables. Altior is the more battle-hardened, and has the best form of the UK runners, though I have a slight niggle about whether he handles Cheltenham's undulations after a visually unimpressive effort here in November. Meanwhile, barn mate Buveur d'Air retains 'could be anything' status whilst having beaten plenty of 'probably nothing' status thus far. His Newbury win has worked out quite well, in fairness, but the form of the Huntingdon 'racecourse gallop' last time is hollow.

Further down the lists, one of my longshot pokes for last year, Silver Concorde, is ready to step forward on better ground. It is easy to forget that this lad won the Champion Bumper on his only previous Festival visit. And Supasundae almost emulated that feat when sixth in the same race last term. Both are expected to run well.

I'd be most inclined to have a tilt at either Silver Concorde or Supasundae under normal conditions but, with so many bookie concessions available to all, I'm going to try and grab some cash and some free bets, as follows...

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
PADDY
- POWER - Back Min £25, £25 free bet if he's second
BOYLESPORTS - Back Altior £25, £25 free bet if second or third to fav
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back Altior £25, 3 x £25 free bets if he wins (and is 3/1+)
SKYBET - Back Buveur d'Air £25, money back as a free bet if he loses
CORAL - Back Supasundae £10 e/w, £5 free bet for every Mullins Tuesday winner
LADBROKES - Back Altior (or your strongest fancy, not Min), money back as a free bet if fav wins
BETBRIGHT* - New customers can get £1 at 50/1 on any horse in the race

Likely Pace Angles:

Supasundae, Bellshill and Charbel were all on the lead last time, with most of the rest of these prominent. I'd expect plenty of speed early, with William H Bonney and possibly Silver Concorde held up.

Suggested day of race play:

See the 'specials board' above

Tipped already: 

2 pts e/w Yorkhill 6/1 NRNB (Money back)

Best Supreme Novices' Hurdle offers:

See above - all the "here's how I'm playing it" offers can be used against the horses of your choosing (of course)

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)
LADBROKES - Money back as a free bet if 2nd in any C4 race (max £25)
HILLS - Money back as a free bet if 2nd in any Cheltenham race (max £25)

Also, Paddy are paying each way 1/5 1-2-3-4

**

2.10 Arkle Challenge Trophy Preview

Another of the early preview races, the Arkle was considered on 4th March here, and Sizing John advised 'without the favourite'. Those who followed me in got 7/2 (and maybe even 4/1) on a horse now trading no bigger than 2/1, so we have the value at the very least. Fingers crossed for a first ante post draw of the week!

This race has predictably cut up, to just seven runners, and Douvan looks 'bar a fall' material. He's quick, he's classy, he was scintillating on the track when winning the Supreme last season, and he should win. He is also 2/5 so, unless you have an abundance of fives you might not be keen to chase those twos being offered.

As you can see from the Arkle preview, I'm not a huge fan of Vaniteux for a number of reasons so, after a wind op, perhaps The Game Changer can run third.

Sizing John has seen plenty of Douvan's derriere, and I think he'll get the closest sight of it again.

Likely Pace Angles:

Douvan will probably lead - it will take a fast horse to go past him - and I expect Sizing John to be close up as well as, potentially, Fox Norton. The speed they go early could force mistakes from others in the early part of the race.

Suggested day of race play: None

Tipped already: 

2pt win Sizing John 'without Douvan' 7/2
0.25 pt e/w Arzal 'without Douvan' 33/1 (LOST, NR)

Best Arkle Trophy offers:

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)
LADBROKES - Money back as a free bet if 2nd in any C4 race (max £25)
HILLS - Money back as a free bet if 2nd in any Cheltenham race (max £25)

**

2.50 Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase

The first handicap of the week and, on a day which tends to ease punters in gently, this is a 'cap that does likewise. Ignoring the trio of bombs - at 28/1, 33/1 and 50/1 - the average odds of winners this century has been just better than 15/2. For a field of around two dozen annually, that's not too bad at all.

This time, the top of market sees Holywell - a managed mark from Mr O'Neill (Jonjo) - and Out Sam, the archetypal progressive novice that perennially performs with aplomb in the Festival Handicap Chase.

Holywell has joint top weight, on account of his class: he was fourth in the Gold Cup itself last year, and won this race the year before off 145. Since the Gold Cup his rating has plummeted from 163 to 153 in a manner that a surprising number of good horses from his yard seem to do. Again, almost inexplicably (almost!), they seem to return to form in the middle of March at Cheltenham. There is little doubt Holywell is the best horse in the race, but whether he can carry the weight against aspirants with more to come is the big question. I think he'll go close if his jumping passes muster.

Out Sam has won a couple of three-runner soft ground novice chases so far. His four career wins have come in races of four, seven, three and three runners; and in his two big field contests he fell in the Albert Bartlett and was sixth in a 15-runner Class 2 handicap hurdle. Progressive he may be, and very well fancied by his stable, but he's no price in the hurly burly of an event like the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase. Not for me.

Next in my can't have list is Kruzhlinin, whose form is all achieved on flat tracks. He pulled up in the novices' handicap chase at the Festival three years ago and I won't be on him if/when he wins.

I prefer the chance of The Young Master. Progressive and still relatively unexposed over fences, Neil Mulholland's lad had a 'classic' prep for this in the Cleeve Hurdle, the exact same route last year's winner, The Druids Nephew, took. He's feasibly weighted and feasibly priced at 14/1.

Also expected to run better than on Trials Day is Un Temps Pour Tout, who was never closer than when fourth at the line. Cynics might suggest he wasn't supposed to get that close, but the handicapper was onside in any case, dropping David Pipe's fellow four more pounds. He's now 148, from a high of 154 and, if handling the big field, he's another who could figure for a yard whose record in this race is not as good as in some of the others (one win from 14 runners, four places, since 2003).

At big prices, Double Ross has made the frame seven times from nine course starts, including two Festival thirds. At ten, he's the same age as four of the last 17 winners, and the main stumbling block with him - aside from the ability question that hangs over all contenders - is the extended three mile trip. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is in fine form making a quote of 40/1 playable for beans each way, five places.

The Irish have a better record in this than they're sometimes given credit for and filled out the podium last year with Grand Jesture and Gallant Oscar, their only two representatives. This time, Morning Assembly is the main Irish hope from three to run. Third in last year's RSA Chase, and again in the Punchestown Festival equivalent, he's in here for his handicap debut off a mark of 150. Given a known liking for conditions, he ought to go well. His trainer is in fantastic form too.

Lots more with chances, and every likelihood I haven't mentioned the winner but, as with all the Festival handicaps, you pays your money and takes your chance. 

Likely Pace Angles:

Very few out and out trailblazers here, so tactical position could be important. Those who have gone from the front include Southfield Theatre, Ballykan, Morning Assembly, and Out Sam. I wouldn't personally want to be with a late runner, a group that has included O Maonlai, Band Of Blood and Spring Heeled (though the last named might race more prominently than he has been).

Your first 30 days for just £1

Tips: 

Holywell is within hailing distance of his winning mark in this race in 2014, and can be expected to bring his A game here. The Young Master and Un Temps Pour Tout are respected, but I like the look of Morning Assembly of the trio. And for windmill-tilters, Double Ross could offer hope for a while at least at a huge price.

1 pt win Holywell 8/1 Boyle, totesport

0.5 pt e/w Morning Assembly 14/1 bet365, Skybet (1/4 1-2-3-4-5)

0.25 pt e/w Double Ross 40/1 Coral, Hills (1/4 1-2-3-4), 33/1 bet365, Skybet (1/4 1-2-3-4-5)

Best Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase offers:

Look for a bookmaker paying FIVE places if betting each way. bet365, Skybet, totesport, betfred, BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral, Winner, Betfair Sportsbook and racebets are all paying five places at time of writing.

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)

**

3.30 Champion Hurdle

This was the first race I previewed, and my non-runner no bet pick, Windsor Park, was soon declared an absentee. Cash back, no harm done. I rewrote the preview and sided with Arctic Fire non-runner no bet. Guess what? He picked up 'a little chip off a sesamoid bone' and that was that. More funds returned, and still no wager in the race.

To this point, I've not gone in again. The fact that I don't really like Annie Power at her quote of 9/4 should mean I can go at something else. But, having backed Identity Thief at big prices and now feeling his odds over- rather than under-state his chance, I'm struggling to find a play.

Certainly, the Thief is the most likely improver. He's stepped forward from a rating of 131 to one of 159 in five races, and who is to say he's done? Quicker ground than he faced at Leopardstown could allow him to reverse placings with Nichols Canyon, his last day vanquisher - himself put in his place by both Arctic Fire and Faugheen prior to their double default.

The first home from last year's race is, remarkably, fifth placed The New One. He ran on well there, as is his wont at this trip, but surely he can't be good enough to take the major share here even in a race for reserves. Maybe he can...

A word on Annie Power. She's an amazing mare, but increasingly sparingly campaigned, and not recently at this trip or against the boys. Her win last time showed there was still a leg in each corner but, in beating a 130-rated mare by seven lengths, little more. She can win, of course she can. But she's lamentable value to my eye, given she has been trained to run another half mile against a group of subservient ladies.

In the cheap seats, I've got a few quid riding on Camping Ground, a classy French import now with Robert Walford. He looked super classy when winning the Relkeel on heavy over two and a half miles here; then shaped like a non-stayer when far back against Thistlecrack. In truth, I'm not sure he will travel as well as that Relkeel run on quicker ground and over a shorter trip, but if they get racing far enough out he'll be staying on with The New One, and he's four times the price.

I'd be amazed if a Henderson horse wins this, in spite of his five-pronged attack, and in spite of it looking a sub-standard year. His team are respectively not match fit (My Tent Or Yours), not tractable (Peace And Co), and not good enough (Top Notch, Hargam, Sign Of A Victory). Still, the Lord loves a trier.

Sempre Medici has his fans, but he's not my cup of gin in a race of this nature. Surely his best form is on softer ground, too.

Likely Pace Angles:

A pacey race by the looks of things. Annie Power can go on, or sit prominent. Identity Thief, however, looks likely to try to make all with, perhaps, Nichols Canyon challenging him for that privilege.

Tips: 

I'm sure someone will be trying to 'get' Annie Power in the morning if not before. If she goes to 3/1, maybe she's saver material. But I couldn't back her at shorter. I can't really back much else either so, though it pains me to suggest it, perhaps this is one to sit out... or have a crack at Camping Ground or something else at a price.

0.25 pt e/w Camping Ground 20/1 general (for an interest, but check the early morning prices)

Best Champion Hurdle offers:

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)

**

4.10 Mares' Hurdle

No Quevega, and now no Annie Power. Still, up steps Vroum Vroum Mag to take up the Mullins mantle in the Mares'. I like her chance, as I've suggested in this Mares' Hurdle preview.

She looks very likely to run well but at even money she won't be everyone's idea of a bet. At the prices, I think Harry Fry has a strong hand. His Bitofapuzzle ran third in this before an abortive chasing career this term. If she's in the same form as in the race last year, then she has little to find to get involved. If.

The other Fry runner, Desert Queen, has shown her best form on this sort of ground and at this sort of trip. She's bounded up the handicap as a consequence and 33/1 is much too big. She rates a good value each way bet. The one fly in the ointment is that she probably wants to lead, and there are others in this field who might not give her an easy time there.

Polly Peachum also looks rock solid to run her race and was very, very unlucky not to win last year after Annie tipped up.

Likely Pace Angles:

Bags of pace, with Desert Queen, Tara Point, Fairytale Theatre and Gitane du Berlais all habitual front-runners. That could suit the likes of The Govaness and Lily Waugh who will be campaigned much more patiently.

Tips: 

Vroum Vroum Mag looks to have a robust chance to win. Desert Queen and, more obviously, Polly Peachum, offer each way or 'without' value.

Already advised:

0.5 pts e/w Desert Queen 25/1 (now 33/1 general)

Suggested day of race play:

0.5 pt e/w Desert Queen 20/1 without VVM bet365 1/4 1-2-3

2 pts Polly Peachum 10/3 without VVM BetVictor

Mares' Hurdle offers:

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)
PADDY POWER* - New customers, get 7/1 Vroum Vroum Mag to win (max £10)

BEWARE - Victor, Power and Hill paying 1/5 1-2-3 (all others 1/4 1-2-3)

**

4.50 National Hunt Chase

Four miles, 25 fences, novice chasers, amateur jockeys: if your idea of a Cheltenham bet is in this race, you're a braver (or more foolhardy) man or woman than me!

Actually, in fairness, this has tended to go to the classier animals in recent times, and that is reflected in a maximum SP of just 8/1 - and an average of 5.65/1 - over the last five years.

Top rated on official figures is Vicente, Paul Nicholls' Dom Alco gelding. He'd looked impressive in winning a trio of novice chases, including one at Class 2 level, but was disappointing behind Blaklion last time. He's had plenty of experience and will be ridden by one of the better British amateurs, Will Biddick.

Ben Pauling runs Local Show, who comes here on a hat-trick after wins in three mile novice chases at Kempton and Newbury. He's looked quite classy and a stout stayer, and he should be front rank under Tom David. He also possesses the best speed rating in the field making 16/1 quotes of mild appeal.

Minella Rocco is the favourite after a staying on second in the Reynoldstown at Ascot. But he may have been flattered there, the official handicapper having him as only the eighth most talented in the field on what they've shown so far. Perhaps the Kim Muir might have been a better race for him.

Gordon Elliott runs Noble Endeavour and has booked the services of last year's winning rider, Jamie Codd. Second, staying on, in a Grade 2 over three miles last time, his breeding doesn't scream four miles, and his rating (141) doesn't scream Cheltenham conditions race winner. He's obviously well fancied by a yard who don't normally get things wrong, but I have to let him beat me at the price, around 7/1.

I'm not sure whether Pont Alexandre will stay, and the fact he had the speed to run third in a Grade 1 over two and a half miles last time suggests he might struggle. He's classy without question, but I don't think he'll get home.

Southfield Royale ought to get home, and Neil Mulholland might go very close with this son of Presenting. Second to Tea For Two in the Grade 1 Feltham, he was done for speed that day, but won't be here. Both he and the third home there, Native River, can get involved in this. Regular readers will know I backed Colin Tizzard's horse for the RSA Chase, connections opting to come here after a disappointing run in the Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. He looked to have a tough race there and I'd be reluctantly against him as a consequence.

Katie Walsh rides Measureofmydreams, a son of Shantou. He has five lengths over Noble Endeavour on last time running, and a great pilot for this job. All form so far has been on softer, though.

The mare, Ballychorus, is a strong stayer and has had a lot of experience. She has fallen twice - both at the last fence in competitive handicaps - and that level of form and stamina gives her a chance. She's a touch of value at 16/1 if she puts in a clear.

Definitly Red is another who had a tough race in the Towton, but he's shaped like this marathon is right up his street. Sam Waley-Cohen is an eye-catching booking for a lad with stamina and class, so 16/1 is fair.

Likely Pace Angles:

Oodles of pace, with all of Waldorf Salad, Pont Alexandre, Vintage Vinnie, Bally Beaufort, Local Show and Ballychorus likely to be pushing on early. That should ensure you need to be a proper stayer to get home in front.

Tips: 

It's a trappy race, and I'm not keen on the top of the market. Worth a chance are Measureofmydreams - 10/1 - and Definitly Red - 16/1 - for small win money only.

0.5 pt win Measureofmydreams 10/1 general

0.5 pt win Definitly Red 16/1 general

National Hunt Chase offers:

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)

Bet365, Skybet, totesport, betfred, BetVictor, Ladbrokes, Coral ALL paying 1/4 1-2-3-4

**

5.30 Novices' Handicap Chase

One of the newest races at the Festival, the clamour for places in the field has led to a most compressed handicap in the past couple of years. In 2013, just eight pounds separated top and bottom weight; in 2014, it was nine pounds; last year it was six, and this year a mere five (and only one on the bottom weight).

So, we're basically looking at a conditions race where we need to establish which horse can leap forward the most under these conditions: an extended two and a half miles at a good clip, on an undulating track and good to soft turf.

There are a couple that interest me for small change in a race which is probably too tricky. Firstly, Rezorbi caught my eye when falling at Cheltenham on Trials Day in late January. On his first UK start, this ex-Frenchie - now trained by Jonjo - travelled notably well having not really been put into the race. I said at the time that

Jonjo O'Neill was giving this former French racer his first sight of UK fences, let alone Cheltenham's stiff obstacles. Given a very quiet waiting ride, Rezorbi was creeping into contention when unshipping at the second last.

It looked a nasty fall but, if none the worse for it, this young fellow - only just turned five - looks a credible contender for the Novices' Handicap Chase off anything close to his Saturday mark of 138. It is hard to foresee the handicapper nudging him up, or indeed down, after a run where promise readily outpointed performance on the day

Right enough, Rezorbi remained on 138 and, with a knowledge of what he'll now face, he can run better than a 20/1 shot.

Another at a very big price is Twelve Roses, Kim Bailey's fellow being 33/1 in a place. Second in a Grade 2 last time under very similar going and distance, he's rather shown his hand to the handicapper. And yet this is a race where the best horses have done well, albeit normally from the top of the market.

Tom George is in form and runs the top speed figure horse, Double Shuffle. This one has run twice at Cheltenham already this season, finishing second and fourth in good races. Conditions are in his favour and 25/1 is tempting.

Finally, Aloomomo is the talking horse's talking horse this year. Three wins on the bounce, the last in a fair handicap, he was beaten last time in a mark-preserving hurdle race. If you're on at a nice price, good for you. If you're thinking of taking 6/1, more fool you, regardless of the result. The value ship has sailed and the disciplined player must sniff elsewhere. Let's face it, there's plenty else to sniff at!

Likely Pace Angles:

Killala Quay looks likely to lead a in race with a nice pace shape to it, according to historical profiles at least. Nothing should be especially inconvenienced or otherwise.

Tips: 

0.5 pt e/w Rezorbi 20/1 general

0.5 pt e/w Double Shuffle 12/1 Betfair Sports (1/4 1-2-3-4-5)

Novices' Handicap Chase offers:

Betfair Sportsbook are already paying each way five places, and there will hopefully be more following suit tomorrow.

BET365 - Back a 4/1+ winner on a live C4 race, get a risk-free £25 bet on the next C4 race
CORAL
- Money back as a free bet if your horse falls (Max stake £25)
BETFAIR SPORTS - Back a winner at 3/1+, get 3 free bets to same stake (max £25)
BETVICTOR - Money back as a free bet if 2nd to Mullins horse (max £25)

Cheltenham Festival Day One Preview / Tips

Cheltenham Festival Day One Preview / Tips

Can Nicholls win the Supreme again?

Can Nicholls win the Supreme again?

1.30 Supreme Novices Hurdle

The opening race of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the collective exhalation of breath as the tapes rise after 361 CheltFest-less days at Prestbury Park might be enough to create its own micro-weather system in the Gloucestershire hills.

The Supreme is always a strong race, bringing together the cream of the novice ranks from both sides of the Irish Sea; and that convergence of form lines has often seen lofty reputations lowered a peg or two. This year may be no different, as the market is dominated by two horses - one British, one Irish - and if both are beaten there will be jam aplenty on winning punters' bread.

This is also a race where the bookmakers focus a disproportionate number of their concessions, keen to get cash in virtual wallets, and I'll incorporate that into my tip suggestions at the close.

2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Trends

Age: Thirteen of the last sixteen winners were aged five or six. But, from much smaller entry sizes, horses aged four, seven and eight have also won a Supreme during that time. The data is somewhat inconclusive as to whether there is a favoured age group, despite what some trends peddlers may tell you. In fact, five and six year olds won 81.25% of the races from 81.6% of the runners, meaning they very slightly under-performed against numerical expectation.

Last time out: Fourteen of the last sixteen winners also won their previous race, and it has been a profitable angle to follow progressive form displayed by under-rated horses against the 'reputation horses'. Indeed, backing all last time out winners during that period (from 1997) was worth a profit of 22.25 units at SP. Last time out winners have won 87.5% of the Supremes, from just 40% of the runners.

Days since a run: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) under review last ran between 16 and 60 days prior to claiming their Supreme Novices' crown. They accounted for 73% of the runners. Not one of the 31 horses to be returning within two weeks even placed.

Experience: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) had had between two and four hurdles starts, from 61% of the runners. The most inexperienced winner since 1997, in terms of total races run, was Menorah with five starts. This counts against the likes of Gilgamboa, Josses Hill, and Valseur Lido. This is a tough race, often with a lot of scrimmaging, and street smarts is a most desirable attribute.

UK vs Ireland: The Irish lead 9-7 in the period under scrutiny, and from far fewer runners. Their success computes to 56.25% of the wins (and 37.5% of the places - eighteen) from 31.75% of the runners, exactly a hundred.

Those trends point to the top four in the betting - Irving, Vautour, Wicklow Brave, and Vaniteux.

2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Preview

The logical place to begin the form preview is with the trends horses, especially as they spearhead the betting lists too. Before that, though, it will pay to keep in mind the average improvement Supreme winners found from their previous run.

Using Racing Post Ratings as a guide, each of the last ten winners found significant improvement from their last run, and all bar Menorah scored a career top in the race. The range of improvement from last run to winning Supreme run was +6 to +36. The average was +14 and, even removing the outliers (+6 and +36), the average improvement from last run was +12.25.

What does this mean, and how can we use it? In a nutshell, it means that the winner can be expected to record a significantly higher performance figure in this race than he has previously, and most likely in the 7-14 range on RPR's.

The average winning Racing Post Rating was 152.9 in the past decade, so it is reasonable to expect an unadjusted (i.e. Racing Post card RPR minus seven pounds - trust me on this!) of 139 - meaning a published figure of 146 - to be the minimum to achieve the likely required improvement.

You know when you start trying to explain something, and you wished you hadn't... Let's move on!

The favourite, at around 5/2, is Irving. This decent flat horse in Germany - a son of Singspiel out of a staying German mare - has made a blemishless start to his hurdling career. In his four wins from four runs, he has won two Grade 2 events, both in taking style, and has been awarded a handicap rating of 149.

Aside from the form, Irving has no marked ground preference, which is one less thing to worry about if you're a fan. On the downside, he does still look a bit novicey at his hurdles, a comment which applies to plenty of his rivals too, of course.

Vautour is pushing him for favouritism as a 3/1 shot, and will be the first of many Willie Mullins-trained horses to run during the week. Since coming over from France, where he was second on both starts, Vautour has rattled off a two month hat-trick of wins, culminating in a cheeky defeat of The Tullow Tank in a Grade 1 event.

That last success earned him a rating of 154 from the Irish handicapper, which is a few pounds higher than Irving. I wasn't all that taken by the manner of his victory that day, as I felt the second was given plenty to do. The time before, Vautour just outgunned Western Boy when a 1-4 shot.

Overall, whilst I have no doubt he can win, I don't think he's any value whatsoever so to do, and my quest for a bet continues.

Stablemate Wicklow Brave took a little time to come to hand, finishing mid-division in a bumper on his first career start. That was at the Punchestown Festival and a month later he ran a very close second in a big field back at the same track.

The next stop on Wicklow Brave's Irish tour was the Galway Festival where he broke his maiden at the third attempt, again in a big field and this time on good ground. Since that day, he's been unbeaten in four further races, two bumpers and two hurdle contests.

The last of those was a Listed affair, where he strolled away from Lieutenant Colonel in the style of a most progressive animal. Indeed, his Racing Post Ratings have improved from 105 to 110 to 120 to 131 to 146, and that most recent number gives him little to find with the top pair.

I like this chap - he travels extremely well in his races - but I do have a concern about his hurdling, which was sloppy at the finish of the Listed win. If he can improve that side of his game, he's a major player in the Supreme at around 7/1.

Vaniteux has been the recent springer in the market, and that's primarily on the basis of improvement in his work at home, which is said to be scintillating. This Nicky Henderson inmate was looking like the stable second choice, after Josses Hill, but the indications are that Barry Geraghty will ride him now, and strong support has seen his price cut from 25/1 a week ago to a top offer of 12/1.

But for a blunder at the last in a good novice hurdle on Boxing Day, he might well be unbeaten in three starts since switching from point to points, and he has verdicts over Vibrato Valtat and Portway Flyer (effortlessly) either side of that last slithered landing.

His easy last day success was over two and a half miles and that strong staying aspect to his game - hinted at in his pointing career - will be a solid asset in a very fast race such as the Supreme. If his jumping holds up, there's a chance Vaniteux can find the required improvement to land those recent wagers.

Stablemate Josses Hill is on 16/1 alongside Gilgamboa and Valseur Lido, two Irish raiders. Josses Hill was comprehensively outpointed by Faugheen in a Punchestown bumper on his debut, but won well on his next two starts.

He was elevated to Grade 1 level last time out and just found wanting by half a length to another stablemate, Royal Boy. Josses Hill looked likely to prevail jumping the last and had the rail to guide him to the line, but was outbattled by his more experienced, and seemingly stronger staying, team mate.

I don't feel Josses Hill has the necessary combination of experience and class to beat all in a Supreme, though that was a significant career best last time out. It's a bit disconcerting, too, that he was beaten by a stable mate last time and has a better fancied stable mate entered in this.

Gilgamboa is a really interesting one. Although he's only had four career runs, they include wins the last twice in handicap hurdle company, the latter of which was the highly competitive Grade B Boylesports Hurdle. There he beat Flaxen Flare, himself a Festival winner last year, by an assertive length and a quarter, the pair a couple and more clear of some lightly weighted rivals.

Flaxen Flare was spotting the winner five pounds, taking his rider's claim into account, and was officially rated a stone better. Gilgamboa has been nudged up from 128 there to a new mark or 140, which seems sensible based on the figure and proximity of his nearest neighbour in the Boylesports.

That number gives him exactly a stone to find on Vautour, according to the Irish handicapper, and who am I to argue with him? The fact is, if the handicapper is even nearly right, it's asking an awful lot of Gilgamboa to improve not just the stone or thereabouts to catch Vautour, but also the extra seven pounds on top which is the usual improvement demonstrated by Supreme winners.

Valseur Lido was bought privately from France by Gigginstown's bottomless fund, after a narrow but comfortable win in a Lyon Parilly flat race. The second that day has won since, at Pau, and the form looks fair. His Irish contract has begun well with easy back-to-back victories over first Voluptueux and most recently King William.

I say "most recently", but it was in fact before Christmas, and that's a major concern. The balance of history - and common sense - says that a fairly recent run, and probably in higher class, is usually required to win a Supreme. Although he's 16/1 that's not enough to tempt me, given the big negative.

The rest don't look good enough, but there is one wild card left in the pack. If the aforementioned Faugheen was to show up here, he'd have a huge chance befitting his huge frame. This is a horse that walks over his hurdles rather than having to jump them, and he's a serious player for whichever race his connections pitch him.

He's won from two miles to three, from good ground to heavy, and in fields ranging from seven to 22. His cruising speed is so high, as a consequence of that massive stride, that he'd surely have no problem if rocking up here. But he is still more likely to take in either the Albert Bartlett or the Neptune.

2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Tips

Plenty of unexposed material here, as you'd expect, and sifting through the strings of 1's by horse's names is a tricky task. It will clearly be no surprise if either Vautour or Irving win the 2014 running of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but nor does it look a value route to take into the race.

In truth, there are more attractive betting races - like the ensuing Arkle Chase - but there may still be something to go at in here, especially if using the very generous bookmaker concessions.

I quite like the look of Wicklow Brave, and he's worth backing with either SkyBet or Paddy or both, at 13/2.

If you back him - or any other horse in the race - with SkyBet, and the favourite wins, you'll get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.

And if you back him - or any other horse in the race - with Paddy, and your horse finishes second, third or fourth, you'll also get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.

Tentative Supreme Tip:
Wicklow Brave 13/2 SkyBet (money back as free bet if favourite wins) / Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)

Each way choice:
Vaniteux 12/1 Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)

skybet.com

 

**

2.05 Arkle Chase

Rock On Ruby: Arkle winner?

Rock On Ruby: Arkle winner?

The second race on a stellar opening day of the Cheltenham Festival 2014 is the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy, a novice chase run over two miles. This is a serious test of speed and there's no hiding place for frail jumpers or doubtful stayers, as they'll set off fast and maintain the gallop all the way to the finish.

It's a race that has been the springboard for many a Champion Chase winner, and even in recent times has heralded the arrival of the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Sizing Europe, Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop. Make no mistake, it takes a tip-top birch-bouncer to bag the Arkle.

In this post we'll consider the recent Arkle trends, as well as the form profiles for the main contenders, before honing in on a tip or two. Let's start then with the trends.

Arkle Chase 2014 Trends

Age: The Arkle tends to be a race for young upwardly mobile types, and established hurdlers looking to break into the top echelons of chasing have struggled at the sharp end. The last 24 Arkle winners were aged five to eight, with a notable number of fancied older horses turned over.

In 2002, Barton could only manage seventh at 9/2; a year later, Adamant Approach fell when a 7/1 shot; and, more recently, Captain Cee Bee was only eighth as the 5/2 favourite in 2010; and, last year, Overturn was turned over at 7/2, finishing no better than fourth.

It's a young nag's game, and Rock On Ruby (nine) will be bidding to become only the second horse aged older than eight to win the Arkle since Sir Ken way back in 1956.

Experience: Although Simonsig had just two chase starts to his name last term (and Champleve and Tiutchev likewise at the turn of the century), and Well Chief had just a single outing over the big'uns in 2004, the general level of experience for Arkle winners has been three (three winners) or four starts (eight winners) since 1997. The brilliant Moscow Flyer had already run in five steeplechases when he lined up for, and won, the 2002 Arkle.

Form: Since 1997, only one of the 57 horses to finish outside of the first two in their prior start has won. Contraband, a 7/1 shot and possibly the worst Arkle winner in living memory, was that horse. Indeed, Contraband's previous third place was the ONLY placing outside of the first two that any Arkle winner since... well, as far back as Racing Post records go, which is at least 1988. The strong percentage play is to demand a 1-2 finish the last day.

UK or Irish? The Irish have saddled 58 runners since 1997 in the Arkle, with just three winning (5% srtike rate). The British have saddled 13 winners from their 142 runners (9% strike rate) in the same time span. Looking only at those horses priced 12/1 or below, the figures come down to Ireland 3-23 (13%) and UK 13-76 (17.1%). Thus, the UK trained runners have enjoyed an edge, but perhaps not as marked as first meets the eye.

Arkle Chase 2014 Form Preview

For what is normally a fairly well established market, the 2014 Arkle looks wide open at time of writing. Champagne Fever, winner of the Cheltenham Bumper and Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, heads the betting at 4/1. He's closely followed by Trifolium and Dodging Bullets, both 6/1 shots, and Rock On Ruby, an 8/1 play.

It's then 10/1 Valdez, 11/1 Hinterland, and 16/1 bar those.

Champagne Fever deserves to be favourite. After all, we know he loves that Cheltenham hill, using it twice now to winning effect, having been beaten earlier in both seasons. This term, he has also been bested, and into third place too, by Defy Logic and Trifolium. Whilst he'll not be beaten by Defy Logic at Cheltenham - that one struggling with injury - the fifteen length margin of defeat and that significant trend he has to overcome are concerns.

However, on the plus side, if the ground at Cheltenham comes up good to soft, as it normally does, his record on that sort of quick turf reads 111. On balance, whilst I hugely respect Champagne Fever, I can't bring myself to bet him at 4/1. He was 16/1 when winning the Cheltenham Bumper, and was available at 16/1 shortly before winning the Supreme (returned 5/1).

He is entered in the PJ Moriarty Chase, a Grade 1 over 2m5f, on Sunday.

Trifolium has a more traditional Arkle profile, with chase form of 1221, the latter two efforts in Grade 1 company. He was a slightly unlucky third in the 2012 Supreme on good ground, but was nine lengths too good for Felix Yonger in the Grade 1 Irish Arkle, and eleven lengths in front of Champagne Fever when second to Defy Login in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase. He is the form choice and, with no doubts about the course or the ground, looks a solid bet at 6/1.

Dodging Bullets is another whose chase form is hard to crab. He's three from three over fences, including Grade 2 victories the last twice. One of that pair was at Cheltenham, but the worry with this chap is that he's twice come up short at the Festival - 9th in the Supreme last year and admittedly a respectable fourth in the Triumph in 2012. Dodging Bullets is entered in the Kingmaker at Warwick on Saturday, if it beats the weather, but with Paul Nicholls' thirteen Arkle runners in the past decade yielding no wins and just two in the frame - a list which includes five horses at 4/1 or shorter - he's not for me.*

*My thanks to Gavin Priestley's Cheltenham stats book for that nugget

Your first 30 days for just £1

Rock On Ruby is a horse I love. He's a Champion Hurdler as recently as 2012, and was second in last year's Champion Hurdle. But he's nine now, and was hurdling a long time. Whilst he has been very clever on the rare occasion he's missed a fence, and he has undoubted class, I just feel that there's no coincidence in the stats about nine-year-olds here, and have to reluctantly overlook him. If there's one to beat me, I hope it's Harry Fry's Rock On Ruby.

Valdez is unbeaten in three over fences, and saw off Irish raider, Arnaud, last time. He was entitled to, though, off level weights and officially rated ten pounds his superior. Still, Valdez was coming back from a break and stayed on very takingly up the pan flat Donny run-in, implying he'll enjoy the stiffer circuit and sharper match fitness in the Arkle. At 10/1, he offers a bit of scope for each way players, and trainer Alan King is massively respected.

Hinterland has been off the track since winning the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in early December, and he's not currently got any entries. That's just too long a layoff for me to entertain and, while he could run between now and the Festival, he's no value to win the Arkle as things stand, especially given his trainer Paul Nicholls' aforementioned bad record in the race.

We're then in the realms of the 16/1 bar brigade. While Felix Yonger is a top priced 16/1, he might well go to the longer JLT Novices' Chase, and the best price with a non-runner concession is 10/1 which makes little appeal.

Grandouet is mildly interesting. True, he has been blighted with jumping issues throughout the big days of his career, and true, he's looked a bit off colour this season. But he was going like the winner in the Champion Hurdle last year when coming to grief - albeit a fair way out - and he is capable of a big run. 16/1 non-runner free bet isn't the worst wager in the Arkle.

Arkle Chase Trophy 2014 Tips

It will be clear from what you've read so far that I think Trifolium looks a very solid bet for the 2014 Arkle. He's got a perfect profile - seven year-old with four chase starts, all in the first two, and a win in Grade 1 company last time. He goes on any ground, though may be best on the easy side of good. He jumps well and should be able to race prominently. 6/1 non-runner free bet is the bet in the race for me.

Of the British squad, whilst I fear and respect Rock On Ruby, I'm happy enough to take a chance on the unbeaten Valdez being able to improve enough to make the frame. He looks like he'll stay well and is generally a decent jumper. 10/1, again non-runner free bet, is fair each way value.

Arkle Challenge Trophy 2014 Selection:
Trifolium 6/1 BetVictor Non-Runner Free Bet [advised 6th February 2014]

**

2.40 Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase

The first of the handicaps, and I'll be taking a less comprehensive form view on these races, on the basis that almost every runner has a bit of a chance and I could cover 80% of them and still miss the winner! Nevertheless, there will be pointers aplenty for each of them. Let's get started...

Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Trends

The following trends are since 1997 (16 renewals) and are courtesy of horseracebase

Age: 15/16 - 94% - (and all since Flyers Nap in 1997) were aged between seven and ten, as were 55 of the 59 (93%) placed horses during that time, from 77% of the runners. Exclude the youngest and oldest competitors.

Form: 10/16 (62.5%) won at least once in their last three races, from 44% of the runners; 14/16 (87.5%) were 1-2-3 during that time, from 79% of the runners. Six of the 54 last time out winners claimed this prize, and they were profitable to back blindly. So much for handicap plots!

Weight / Rating: Only one winner carried more than 11-02 to victory, and just 13 of the 59 places went to horses weighted higher too. Since the turn of the century, all bar one winner had a weight of 10-12 or less. The highest rated winner since 1997 was Unguided Missile (149, 1998) and no subsequent scorer has been rated above 143.

Market: Just one favourite has scored in the last sixteen runnings, and only two second favourites. Don't be afraid to take a price about a couple!

Experience: Like a number of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps, those with limited experience - and therefore more scope to improve - have dominated. Since 1997, 13 of the 16 winners (81%) had ten or fewer chase starts, as did 36 of the 59 placed horses (61%), from 154 runners (52%).

Combining these elements, we're looking for a lightly-raced, low rated seven- to ten-year-old, that finished in the first three in at least one of its last three starts.

Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Preview

It's a sequence that will be broken at some point of course, but the fact that the last fifteen winners were rated 143 or below looks telling. That equates to a weight of 11-04 this year, but those carrying more than eleven stone have struggled. I want a horse which has won in its last three starts, too, which means I'm focusing my attention on a shortlist of King Massini, Standing Ovation, Wrong Turn, Muldoon's Picnic, and Green Flag. Relax is excluded from consideration as I'm sure he wants it softer.

Green Flag is a novice and a winner of three races this year, two of them on good ground, and the last two in novice handicaps. He then ran a fine second to Annacotty in the Feltham before unseated on the flat last time (clipped heels). He is a safe jumper for one so inexperienced, and the combination of decent ground and a fair weight makes him of at least some appeal at 14/1.

Muldoon's Picnic is a far bigger price - 33/1 - and yet he stays well and handles good ground. He too is a novice that has won in a handicap, but that small field Class 3 victory was quite a different prospect to what he's facing here.

Wrong Turn is likely to shorten in the betting from his current 16/1 for two reasons: firstly he's trained by Tony Martin, a man with a fine Festival record and a dab hand at placing handicappers to optimal effect; and second, he's won his last three completed handicap chases. Given he's fallen in two races during that sequence, Coral's offer of money back on fallers might be worth availing, though they are shorter than other firms, presumably for that reason.

Standing Ovation was protecting a four race unbeaten record when well enough beaten in a similar race at the November meeting here, but they may have been a 'sighter' for this. Moreover it came just six days after he'd won a Listed handicap chase at Wincanton, which might have taken more out of him than first met the eye. His recent run on soft ground at Kempton can be forgiven, as all his form is on quicker, but that will have blown the cobwebs away and he's a contender if he can track the early pace.

And King Massini is another novice on the upgrade. He too ran within a few days of a win here in an attempt to take advantage before a big hike in the ratings, and was successful in so doing. However, he's not run since mid-December and that is enough to count him out for me.

As with all Cheltenham Festival handicaps, there are loads of others with chances, but I like those key trends, and will take my chances on that basis.

Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase 2014 Tips

The betting is suggesting that one of either the age (Alfie Sherrin) or weight (Holywell, Hadrian's Approach) stats will take a beating this time, but a big chunk of recent history points to taking a chance elsewhere.

I'll side with Green Flag, a most progressive sort that has been first of second in twelve out of thirteen completed starts. He clipped heels and came down the last day when going well as the even money favourite, and his second place in the Feltham - albeit ten lengths behind the winner - showed he has some class to go with his battling qualities.

If Green Flag is right at the historical ratings threshold for the race, and peering over the weight threshold with 11-04, then Standing Ovation and Wrong Turn are snug fits on all historical counts, and both are serial winners, having each scored thrice in their last five starts. At 20's and 16's respectively, they are worthy of each way attention with a bookie paying five places.

Selection:
Green Flag 14/1 Coral (money back on fallers)

Best each way options:
Wrong Turn 16/1 Skybet
Standing Ovation 20/1 general

**

3.20 Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips

2014 Champion Hurdle preview

2014 Champion Hurdle previewWho can beat the 'Fly this winter?

It's the fourth race of 27, and arguably the best. Yes, this year's Champion Hurdle is a chuffing howitzer of a speed scrap, featuring established class versus rising stars in a battle of the generations. It's also a fiendishly difficult punting puzzle, and in this post I'll attempt to piece together the key known elements.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Trends

Age: The only two double-digit aged winners since the Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927 were Hatton's Grace (won aged 9, 10 and 11 1949-51) and Sea Pigeon (aged 10 and 11 1980-81). Hurricane Fly bids for a third Champion Hurdle aged ten.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Katchit was the only five-year-old to win the Champion since the first of See You Then's hat-trick in the race in 1985. Katchit, like Our Conor - who bids to win as a five-year-old this time, was returning to Cheltenham as the winner of the previous year's Triumph Hurdle.

Six to nine year olds have won 28 of the last thirty Champion Hurdles.

Last time out: 41 of the 48 win and placed horses since 1997 finished first or second last time out. They also accounted for fifteen of the sixteen winners during that time. The other winner finished third the last day.

Cheltenham Form: Twelve of the fourteen winners since 1997 to have previously raced at Cheltenham had a place record of at last 75% at the track. Ten of them had a 100% place record at the track. The New One was 'only' sixth in the Champion Bumper.

Days since a run: Only Rock On Ruby, absent since Boxing Day, had failed to run earlier in the same year as when winning the Champion Hurdle since 1997. The New One has been absent since the same day as Rock On Ruby was.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview

In truth, there's very little to glean from the trends except that Hurricane Fly's age negative is mitigated by the feat of other serial winners. Likewise, Our Conor is bidding to emulate Katchit in following up a Triumph Hurdle win with victory in the Blue Riband. The New One has a couple of minor knocks, but it would be careless to omit him from consideration on those grounds alone. Jezki finished fourth last time out, which is worse than any winner this century, but again, context is needed there.

What about the form book then? Where does established form suggest we should cast our wagering net? Let's start with the veteran champ...

Hurricane Fly missed his first intended engagement at the Festival back in 2010 after a late injury ruled him out. He made up for that in 2011 by repelling the valiant Peddlers Cross in the Champion Hurdle.

In 2012, some folks - including me - feel he should have won again. Given plenty to do at the top of the hill, it seemed that Ruby Walsh on the Fly was exclusively preoccupied with what Tony McCoy - aboard Binocular - was doing. Walsh was looking to cover McCoy's every move, and so he did. Unfortunately, the bird had flown in front of them, with Overturn setting the race up for Rock On Ruby. Hurricane Fly was a never nearer five length third, besting Binocular into fourth in the process.

Last year, there was no such error (if indeed you subscribe to the notion that jockeys - contrary to what some of them bleat - actually can, and do, make mistakes). Walsh shovelled on the coal at an appropriate juncture, and his willing mount reversed form with Rock On Ruby to claim Champion Hurdle number two.

The Hurricane is now unbeaten since that Ruby reversal in 2012, which was his only defeat since November 2009. True, he's often duffed up the same nags in short fields in Ireland. But if that's crabbing the champ, then it's hard to argue with his record when he's ferried over to Gloucestershire.

However. How. Ever... He is a ten year old now, and in the likes of The New One, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours, and Jezki, he faces a brand new battalion of fleet-footed aspirants. Allied to that, his form this season - whilst undeniably progressive from race to race - has been at a lower level than last season.

Indeed, according to Racing Post Ratings, his best run this year (RPR 168) fails to measure up to his worst run last year (RPR 169). I love Hurricane Fly. I have a deep reverence for him too. But it would be disappointing for the near future of the Champion Hurdle if at least one of his young upstart rivals wasn't good enough to do him for toe.

But which one?

The New One has been a talking horse for a long time. And, in his defence, he's done plenty of talking on the track too, with a record that shows only one run - the 2012 Champion Bumper - outside the first two. But that's a sequence which does include three - granted, narrow - defeats in his last six races.

And, having failed to pierce the 170 Racing Post Rating barrier to date, as well as having a longer than ideal absence to overcome, I think he's terribly short atop the market at 11/4.

The next pair in the betting, at 9/2 or so, are Our Conor and My Tent Or Yours. Our Conor was a breathtaking fifteen length winner of the Triumph Hurdle last year. That race hasn't worked out brilliantly, and he's been beaten in three starts since.

First, he finished fourth in a big field flat handicap at Naas; then he ran third - beaten six lengths behind Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas; and last time, he was just a length and a half behind the fly in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle.

Dessie Hughes has brought him on slowly this year, as undoubtedly has Willie Mullins with the Fly, and I think it will be very close between the pair on the opening day of the Festival. Our Conor bounded up the hill last year, and it's not hard to see him doing the same again this term. He too has something to find on the numbers, though.

That hill would be the question mark with My Tent Or Yours who, a slight wilting behind Champagne Fever in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle aside, has a good looking profile for the race. He sneaked a prep race in a jumpers' bumper a month before the Festival and that should have him cherry ripe to give his best.

Whether that is quite good enough, against rivals who may finish their races better remains to be seen. He does have the beating of The New One on Christmas Hurdle form, though, and it's quite hard to see why he's a bigger price than that rival. [Note, as I write, there seems to be some unease in My Tent Or Yours' price, and an announcement from Henderson's yard should illuminate further].

Assuming Annie Power goes for the World Hurdle, Jezki is next at around 10/1. He was undeniably disappointing last time when fourth of four in a tactical scrap with the Fly, Our Conor, and pacemaker, Captain Cee Bee. If that run can be ignored - and I'd suggest it can, as it hardly compares to the full tilt of a Champion Hurdle - then he has little to find with both My Tent Or Yours and Hurricane Fly.

Little to find, yes; but he does have to find it, and that's a leap of faith I'm not really prepared to take.

Un De Sceaux is another expected absentee, which is a pity, because his heart-on-sleeve bamboozling front-running style would have been a fascinating sub-plot to the race.

Ignoring the outsiders Grumeti, Ptit Zig and Thousand Stars, the only remaining possible is Melodic Rendezvous. And, if it came up boggy on day one, he'd be a very interesting contender. Let's be clear, despite being a 20/1 shot, he's a Grade 1 and triple Grade 2 winner. Moreover, he's won six of his eight hurdles starts, and was plainly 'wrong' when down the field in the Fighting Fifth, a race in which recent Champion Hurdler Binocular was also turned over.

He's a very good horse, and managed second to Champagne Fever in the Punchestown Champion Bumper on just his second lifetime run. Coming here off the back of a workmanlike performance when seeing off Zarkandar in the Kingwell Hurdle - itself a strong trial for the Champion Hurdle - Melodic Rendezvous had plenty of 'tightening up' to do in the intervening four weeks, and trainer Jeremy Scott seemed quietly excited at his charge's prospects at a recent London Racing Club event.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Tips

The 2014 Champion Hurdle is a really trappy race. It's not clear from where the pace will come, and it's not clear what the ground conditions will be. The best guesses are that the supplemented Captain Cee Bee will lead, and that the ground will be good to soft.

If that comes to pass, then the value - such as it is in a race where the bookies have a strongarm grip on the form - might be with Melodic Rendezvous, who can go on good to soft, at 20/1. My Tent Or Yours has, I think, a better chance than The New One at a bigger price IF he's untroubled by that injury scare.

It's a race in which I've been waiting until the day to back up my Melodic Rendezvous ante post ticket. But, now the day is here, I'll most certainly be using Ladbrokes' 'Money Back as a free bet if Hurricane Fly finishes first or second' offer to back My Tent Or Yours. That is a cracking concession as the old boy looks nailed on to run his race, and we'd need two to get by him, one of which is not My Tent Or Yours, in order not to at least get a second bite of the Cheltenham cherry.

Champion Hurdle selection: My Tent Or Yours 4/1 Ladbrokes (money back as a free bet if Hurricane Fly is first or second)



**

4.00 Mares' Hurdle

Quevega - on a Mares' Hurdle six-timer

Quevega - on a Mares' Hurdle six-timer

The Mares' Hurdle is now in its sixth year and, since Whiteoak won the inaugural running, there has only been one further name etched on the pot: Quevega. That fragile but immensely talented lass has bagged the last five renewals and, as such, has made trends analysis somewhat pointless, for the win part at least.

Quevega bids for an almost imponderable six-timer in the 2014 Mares' Hurdle and, if age has yet to catch up with her, she'll be very hard to beat once more. So, from a trends perspective, I thought I'd look at the profiles of the placed horses - as well as Whiteoak and Quevega in winning year one - to get a flavour for what's required to go close in the Mares' Hurdle.

[Clearly, it's far from a scientific basis from which to strike a wager, but it should be indicative at least.]

Specifically, then, we've got the first three from 2008 and 2009 (Quevega's first win - we'll include her once only); and the placed horses from 2010 onwards, for a total of fourteen in the sample.

The majority of win and placed horses were aged six and seven, with nine of the fourteen in the sample being in that group. Two five year olds have won it, Whiteoak and Quevega first time, but they've failed to add a placed effort to that.

On official ratings, of the thirteen in the sample with a rating, just six were rated 140+, with five of those rated 150+. The remaining seven were 139 or less, and they may offer some value as they include some big-priced beasts.

Only three of the fourteen had failed to win or place in Graded company previously, and two of those had Listed form. Ten of the fourteen had run over hurdles nine or fewer times.

Stamina is a key requirement here too, with twelve of the eighteen win/placed horses (including Quevega all starts) having won at further than the two and a half mile trip. Backing  two-milers in this may not be a smart move. And that's interesting, because two of the next three in the betting - Cockney Sparrow and Down Ace - have yet to race beyond an extended two miles. Indeed, all of Cockney Sparrow's hurdle form is on flat tracks and Cheltenham's undulations will be a further - literally - challenge. She looks a place lay to me.

Down Ace does at least have a three mile point win in the bag, and looked to need every yard of it when just nailing Blue Buttons in a decent Listed novices' hurdle at Taunton last time. She fluffed the last two flights there, though, and will need to be better. If she is, she has place prospects. Too much of an 'if' for me.

Vying for second favouritism, and a much more robust option than the Sparrow in my opinion, is the French raider, Sirene d'Ainay. She almost nicked it from the front last year, as Quevega got caught in traffic after four out. It was a most impressive effort from the champ to get up that day, and Sirene d'Ainay may have been flattered by her proximity. Nevertheless, she was two lengths and more too good for the rest, and comes over in equally good heart this term. Hers is an obvious podium prospect.

The trip will hold no fears for Glen's Melody either and, if she lines up, this Grade 1 winner could give her Mullins stablemate something to ponder. She does seem to need soft ground to give her best but, with the rain still falling, that's a possibility on the first day of the meeting.

I'm against any mare - except Quevega - coming into this off a break of longer than two months. A couple have made the frame, but absences longer than three months have proved insurmountable for all bar the mighty Mullins mare. So it is that Cailin Annamh gets the bullet, and she also has to have fast ground to show her best.

There'd be no such ground, fitness or stamina worries about Highland Retreat, and Harry Fry's seven-year-old mare has been a star player for Team Seaborough this term, notching a hat-trick sealed with a Grade 2 win over three miles on heavy ground. Prior to that she'd won a Listed race over a similar trip on good ground and, though she may get outpaced mid-race, she'll stay on far better than most. 20/1 is tempting, though that is without the non-runner money back concession.

Swing Bowler ran a better race in the Betfair Hurdle last year than she did this term before clunking in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham and, while that might have been a blip - she was off for almost the whole year afterwards, implying injury - it's hard to recommend her.

And then, of course, there's the ten-year-old five-time winner, Quevega. As well as a nap hand here, she's also registered Grade 1 successes at the last four Punchestown Festivals and, if she turns up within seven pounds of her best, she'll win. She's won this race by 14 lengths; 4 1/2 lengths; 10 lengths; 4 lengths; and a hampered-in-running one and a half lengths. She's ten now, and that won't make life any easier, but she has yet to show any sign of regression, and just might be value at 8/11.

I don't have enough elevens to win a meaningful amount of eights, and for that reason wasn't going to play this race at all. But then I saw Betfred's refund offer (see below), and now I will be backing either Sirene d'Ainay (8/1) or Highland Retreat (16/1) win only, with Quevega on my side.

I may also place an exacta sort of bet, with Sirene d'Ainay and Highland Retreat (and perhaps Glens Melody) to grab silver. I may further play the trifecta, throwing a number of big priced 'oily rags' underneath.

Unless you have deep pockets and a strong nerve, this was a race to savour, as it may be the sixth coronation procession of the Queen of Cheltenham, HRH Quevega. But with the Betfred money back offer, we can both savour it and cheer for something else. Nice work, baldy!

Betfred - Money Back if Quevega Wins

Betfred are refunding all bets (as a free bet) up to £25 on the Mares' Hurdle if Quevega wins. Offer applies to win stakes and the win part of each way bets, and it's a bloody good one! Applies to new and existing customers. Click the link below to register if you don't already have a Betfred account.

Betfred Horse Racing

**

4.40 National Hunt Chase

I've got to be honest. I can't stand this race. It's cost me a placepot on too many occasions. A four mile novice chase for amateur riders is about as close as I can think of to how NOT to frame a Cheltenham race. I do accept that others have a different view and, despite the success in the last three years of the top of the market, this is a contest where you are taking a heck of a lot on a wing and a prayer.

It used to be the worst betting race of the meeting, but has improved with the latest ruling allowing novices of all ratings in. The last three winners were the highest rated horses, and that 'all rating' concession is only four years old.

National Hunt Chase 2014 Trends

Ignoring my own disdain, there are some interesting trends, as follows. Thanks again to horseracebase for these.

Last time out: 14 of the last 16 National Hunt Chase winners (87.5%) finished in the top four on their prior start, and 39 of the 48 placed horses (81%) did likewise, from 73% of the runners.

Rating: Since the rule was changed to allow any novice in, as opposed to imposing a ceiling rating, the cream has risen to the top. The last three winners all had a rating above 145 and two of them were rated 150+. They were also all market leaders, and this may be material.

Layoff: None of the 48 runners to race within two weeks of the National Hunt Chase won, and only two placed.

National Hunt Chase 2014 Preview

This will be a short preview. I'm going to look only at the top four in the ratings. They are Shotgun Paddy, Shutthefrontdoor, and Foxrock.

Shotgun Paddy earned his 151 rating by winning the Betfred Classic, a Grade 3 handicap chase, beating Carruthers et al. He is a thorough stayer and may be the best horse in the race, as his rating implies. However, all his form is on testing ground, and that just might be his unpicking here.

Shutthefrontdoor represents trainer Jonjo O'Neill and owner JP McManus. Jonjo has won this five times in the past and he has a very good chance of getting a sixth this year. Shutthefrontdoor has looked an out and out stayer on more than one occasion and, if his jumping holds up, he ought to be bang there. A top price of 4/1 may not be enormous value but this could be a thinned out field by the time they start their second circuit and, if he's still standing, he'll plod on well.

Foxrock is the fly in the ointment. Winner of a big field beginners' chase over 2m6f in late November, he's since run third to Carlingford Lough in a Grade 1 and won a Grade 2, both at three miles. He has some form on decent-ish ground and as such has a fine chance.

Midnight Prayer is rated twelve pounds below Shotgun Paddy, but only seven beneath the best of the rest, and he loves to hear his hooves rattle. Alan King's nine-year-old ought to stay and was unlucky to unseat when hampered three starts back, and might be the best each way bet, if such a thing exists in a race like this.

National Hunt Chase 2014 Tips

Some people like this race more than me. Actually, most people like this race more than me. Still, it does look between the top four in the ratings, and I'm against Shotgun Paddy on the basis of the ground. Of the two favourites, I prefer Shutthefrontdoor.

And as a win and place option, Midnight Prayer offers more hope than most.

Selection: Shutthefrontdoor 3.8/1 Betbright

Best each way: Midnight Prayer 10/1 Seanie Mac

5.15 Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase

A new race introduced in 2005, and one which has quickly seen a 'profile type' emerge.

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Trends

Eight of the nine winners were first (five) or second (three) last time out.

Seven year olds have won six of the nine renewals, though the placed horses have strong representation from six to ten!

There has been a strong upward trend to the winners' ratings. The inaugural winner was rated 123, nine pounds lower than any subsequent winner. Since then, three of the last four winners were rated 139+.

This is a race in which lots of horses are desperate to 'get a run'. As such, there is usually a compressed handicap. Put another way, most of the horses with the highest weights take up their option to run. All bar that first winner have been carrying 10-11 or more. The last three winners carried 11-04 or more.

All nine winners ran 16-60 days ago, as did 30 of the 36 placed horses.

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Preview

I'm looking for a recent runner that finished first or second last time out, and has form in a similar contest.That still leaves about half the field, headed by top weight, Ericht. He finished fifth in the Coral Cup last year, when rated 134 over hurdles. Although this shorter trip is not certain to suit, he comes here in good form, goes in the ground, and has some track history.

Manyriverstocross is one of the more interesting players. Second to a laboured Oscar Whisky last time in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase, a literal interpretation of that form would make him a snip. Good enough as a hurdler to win a Grade 2 over this kind of trip, the guts of Manyriverstocross' form is on top of the ground. He's not a frequent winner, but he has a touch of class and could be nicely handicapped on that last run, for which he was unchanged in the ratings.

Present View is a consistent type and recorded a career best when sluicing up last time in a Kempton handicap chase over this trip (Class 3). He's been whacked by the 'capper for that and this will be much tougher. It's also quicker ground which may not suit as well as the soft turf that last day.

Dursey Sound has finished second on his last two starts but, in so doing, has beaten just one horse! Prior to that he unshipped twice in a row, and would be - at best - an unreliable proposition.

Ahyaknowyerself is an interesting one. He's actually been dropped five pounds for winning by seven lengths last time! A 147 rated hurdler - finished less than five lengths third to Melodic Rendezvous - he gets in here off 135, and that looks generous. I'm not saying he'll win this - I'm not saying any horse will win it! - but he's well in against the pick of his hurdle form and he's a consistent fellow to boot. He does have to prove he stays, but 25/1 could be fun.

Ex-hunter Festive Affair and lightly-raced Buywise have both raced almost exclusively on deep ground and, while that doesn't mean they can't act on quicker, it's a bit of a leap of faith. Meanwhile, Buthelezi beat former Fred Winter winner, Une Artiste, last time on good ground and sneaks in at the bottom the list. He's probably not that well handicapped however, and I'd prefer a couple further up the lists.

Of the trends busters, Attaglance and Up To Something are most appealing. The former won the Martin Pipe here two years ago and, though he's yet to win over fences, there's an arguement that he's been waiting for precisely this day and this race. Track and trip should be fine, and he's two pounds lower than that Festival-winning handicap mark, if you like to assume parity in ratings across the disciplines (a dangerous game at best!)

The latter is joint top weight on the basis of a fine run behind JLT fancy, Wonderful Charm. His mark has been nicely protected since by running first on too soft, and then over too far. Noel Fehily has been booked, and both he and trainer Charlie Longsdon are in good form.

Ohio Gold represents the wily Tizzard team, who won two handicaps last year. They also had this boy finish third in this race, and he may again get onto the podium.

Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase 2014 Tips

Very tricky, but a couple with decent-looking chances are Manyriverstocross and Up To Something. More speculatively, Ahyaknowyerself might go well for a long way unless/until his stamina runs out.

A couple of things to keep in mind here are 1) if yours is a dodgy jumper (this is a novices' race, after all) bet with Coral if they're price competitive, and 2) try to bet with a bookie paying an extra place if you can find one. I'll flag them on twitter in the morning @geegeez_uk

Ohio Gold, 3rd in this last year and two pounds better in, may make the frame again.

Selection:
Manyriverstocross 10/1 888sport (five places)

Each way alternative:
Ohio Gold 25/1 general

Two at huge prices:
Up To Something 40/1 Betbright
Ahyaknowyerself 33/1 Betbright

£30 Risk Free Bet - Betbright partners

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

********

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

********

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

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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

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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.

Cheltenham Festival 2012 Day 1 (Tuesday) Preview Tips

Cheltenham Festival Day One Tuesday Tips

Cheltenham Festival Day One Tuesday Tips

It's finally here. Christmas for grown ups has arrived once more, and the talking stops as the tapes rise at 1.30 tomorrow afternoon. As for each of the four days, here are my thoughts on the opening day and its seven races.

We'll greet the first of 27 races with a cheer and, thereafter, it will be hope over expectation pretty much all the way...

1.30 Cheltenham - Supreme Novices Hurdle

That first race is, of course, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, a Grade 1 over two miles. Recent seasons have seen short-priced jollies here (Cue Card, Dunguib, Cousin Vinny) all beaten, but it's likely to be much more open a betting heat this time around.

My full Supreme Novices Hurdle 2012 Preview is here, and below are a few further thoughts.

Likely favourite, Darlan, is many people's idea of the winner but here's my issue: the one time he was off the bridle, he only just wore down a horse called High Storm literally in the shadow of the post, and that horse and all bar one of the eight horses behind that day have failed to win since, from a collective eleven tries.

Interestingly, that run was here at Cheltenham and, whilst Darlan may a) have been unsuited by the slow pace, and b) have improved a stack since, his price has plenty of consideration of both of these points. I expect there to be stronger finishers in the field than him, and he won't even make my placepot tickets.

[If I'm wrong, there are two other placepot spots available, so I will still have a chance of getting through.]

So who do I like in what is a very tricky race? Well, nothing especially, inasmuch as there are a lot of very promising animals, and we'll know much more about the novice pecking order subsequently.

Without the facility to wager with hindsight, though, I can tell you I backed Tetlami (28/1) and Vulcanite (40/1) on 3rd January, and am pleased to see them both here, and both a good bit shorter.

I recently had a little tickle on Montbazon (12/1) and Colour Squadron (19/1), and that quartet is my four against the field.

There are stacks of unexposed horses up against each other, and anyone who reckons they know unequivocally who the winner is, is either a much better judge than me, or a much worse judge than me... go figure!

Whatever you've backed, the best of luck. With fifteen horses rated within six pounds of each other at the top of the five day declarations, there are plenty of possible winners, and it ought to be a race from which to follow the entire field.

In fact, on that point, backing all runners from last year's Supreme in subsequent starts would have returned 21 wins from 49 starts and a profit of £13.99 for a pound level stake!

There has been a lot of late money for Charles Byrnes' Trifolium and he has some good form. Whilst I might have a small win interest, I'm still happy with my quartet against the field.

2.05 Cheltenham - Arkle Challenge Trophy

This is another race I've already covered elsewhere. Here's my previous Arkle Trophy Preview.

The question we have to answer is this: is Sprinter Sacre unopposable?

For many, the answer is a simple 'yes'. For me, racing is never that simple and, whilst ignorance may well turn out to be blissful, I shall scratch my head in search of a viable alternative.

The reason for my 'against the crowd' perspective? Well, in truth it should be the reasonS, as I believe there are plenty. Here are a few:

1. SS didn't finish up the hill last year in the Supreme, after travelling like much the best horse. But, I hear you counter, he's had a wind op since then. True, and possibly the difference. But still I've not seen this horse win off the bridle since he's encountered obstacles. And I've seen him beaten twice when that happened.

2. Al Ferof has arguably a better level of form. He was the better hurdler, as he proved when beating SS in the aforementioned Supreme last year by more than five lengths. And he's raced against better horses this year, in taking on Somersby and Finian's Rainbow off level weights, and being beaten only five lengths.

SS can boast a bullying of the 134-rated Lightning Rod round pan-flat Donny; a bullying of the almost certainly much better over hurdles Peddlers Cross round the pan flat Kempton; and a bullying of the off for ten months beforehand and giving five pounds in weight and from the same stable French Opera round the flat Newbury.

None of this compares to the level of competition Al Ferof has taken on. Al Ferof has won a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 novice chase, and finished third in a Grade 1 against his elders.

SS has won a Grade 2 novice chase and a Grade 2 against his elders. And let's be clear: it's quite probable that Al Ferof would have stuffed that mob, and I would love to know how SS would have done in Somersby's Victor Chandler Chase.

SS looks visually more impressive, but he's beaten little of note, especially with the defection/dodging by Peddlers Cross, which brings into question the merit of that one's fencing ability.

3. SS is 5/6 and Al Ferof is 5/2. In fact, here are two great ways to play this. Back Al Ferof with Paddy Power at 9/4. It's worth taking shorter because they'll refund your money if SS wins, irrespective of where Al Ferof finishes.

Or back Al Ferof with Boylesports. They'll give you 5/2, and your money back if Al Ferof finishes second to any horse. And you'll be eligible to enter my £250 prize draw if you're opening a new account with them.

Is there anything else in the race? Yes. Menorah. Very, very good horse. Jumping problems. Danger if jumping well. Possible. 9/1 reasonable each way value if you don't mind losing twice should he fall.

Cue Card at 7/1? Erm, not for me. Should have probably headed to the Jewson over further.

2.40 Cheltenham - JLT Specialty Handicap Chase (ex William Hill Trophy)

Ah, the first of the handicaps. In what will be an extremely taxing week from a handicap perspective, I've decided that I will be playing very few of them to anything like proper stakes and, instead, tickle a couple and indulge in broad placepot coverage through them.

I suggest you do likewise. If, however, you deem these to be races to 'go at', then here's a few pointers for the first of many...

...starting with some general handicap chase wisdom.

Since 1996, only 13 of the 63 handicap chases were won by horses carrying 11-00 or more. Of those 13, six were in the amateur riders' race, the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup, and two were in the new novices’ handicap chase (an emerging trend).

So look low in the weights.

Of the three horses sharing favouritism here in the JLT, I'm against Quantitivesomethingorother, who has top weight of 11-12 and has never won at the trip. In fact, his two wins beyond 2m5f were in novice chases of three and four runners!

I'm also against The Package. Connections (Pipe/Johnson) are massively respected. But it will be a stroke of sheer genius if they can win with this one after a week short of 500 days off the track. Indeed, no handicapper has succesfully defied such a lay off in the last nine years at least.

Your first 30 days for just £1

Hold On Julio has looked extremely progressive this season, but the vibes are not good about his chance. With nothing to be gained from being negative (as the yard will have backed him long ago), I'd be looking elsewhere, despite his overall positive profile.

A perfect trends fit, one I've already backed and the one I like most at the prices is Zarrafakt.

Emma Lavelle is having her best season, she's won a couple of Festival handicaps already (from a very selective handful of runners), and this chap looks to have a fine chance. Beaten a fast diminishing head in a Newbury handicap over a quarter mile shorter than this (and giving the Paul Nicholls-trained winner twelve pounds), and then winning over 3m2f 'with any amount in hand' according to the racecourse commentator.

In a race that usually goes to one of the more considered entries, I would think that Zarrafakt will be a warmish order on the day, and can give us a great run for small money.

One I'm surprised to see in here, because I had a little ante-post on him for the Gold Cup (!) is Magnanimity. It's not a great race for the Irish, this, but this chap was only beaten a length in last year's RSA Chase, so will love conditions.

14/1 is another each way shout in an open race.

And finally, though he's more likely to place than win, Tullamore Dew looks solid placepot material after finishing second and third in the last two Cheltenham Festivals.

3.20 Cheltenham - Champion Hurdle

The joint smallest field in recent times, with just ten runners going to post. But the last two champion hurdlers - Binocular and Hurricane Fly - are here and, if it falls to those two at the last, the short field will be an irrelevance.

Similar types in some regards - both have stood little racing and both have missed Festival appointments in the past - this is one of the most keenly awaited clashes of the whole four days.

In 2010, the Fly sent a sick note. In 2011, Bin was still on beta blockers (or whatever 'The Chemist' feeds his Champion Hurdle aspirants - anyone back Grandouet ante-post this year? Anyone back Binocular ante-post last year AND Grandouet this year?!).

But here, in 2012, we get both in attendance, assuming there isn't one of those many slips which occur 'twixt cup and lip.

Will it fall between them? And if so, who will win?

Well, it is quite possible that it falls between them, as they are clearly the best two hurdlers in the field, and both have proved it at this level. But things often don't turn out that way, and further down the bookie's odds board you'll find four Nicholls runners.

I'd be shocked if Celestial Halo was good enough to show all the way home, and delighted if Brampour was. (I stupidly put fifty quid on him, win only, after he won the Greatwood, which is a decent enough trial in most years. He's twice the price now that he was when I backed him).

Of the more likely pair, Zarkandar was impressive considering all the things he had against him (first run for ten months, slow run race, stable under a cloud) when winning the Betfair Hurdle, and he'll improve plenty from there. But this might just come a year too soon.

Five year olds can win, but not when they're faced with two beasts of the calibre of Bin and the Fly.

Rock On Ruby has shortened markedly in the last week or so, and it's easy to see why. Just nosed out of it on an easier track at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle, this stiffer test should be right for him.

But he's been off for 78 days, and that's a good bit more than any of the last fourteen winners at least. Not for me. A very nice chaser for next season, though.

Overturn will bid to go from tape to line, but will surely be overcome by the multiple challengers he can expect here. He's a very hard horse to pass for only one other class horse in a race, but when they come in convoy it looks like curtains.

A winner? The Fly, from Binocular, in a humdinger. Of course, that's my heart speaking. I've backed both in interesting wagers (16/1 e/w about Binocular, recommended to all here, and a ton double with Sizing Europe at 7/2) so ought to have something to cheer either way. Dead heat anyone?

4.00 Cheltenham - Glenfaclas Cross Country Handicap Chase

For many, this is a case of 'from the sublime to the ridiculous'. But, as is often the case, I am not in the many. I really like the cross country race, especially when a) they go the right way, and b) I have the winner.

Generally speaking the winner is easy to find, and I can tell you that this year it will be trained by Willie Mullins and be either Scotsirish or Uncle Junior.

I've had a nice bet (for me, all pockets are relative) on Scotsirish at 5/1 and William Hill nearly tempted me in again last week with their 4/1 offer.

He's a horse I've always liked because he's a bloody trier. And he has a fair bit of class, especially in the context of a race like this. And he likes banks. And ditches. And brush hurdles. And all of the other assorted impediments the runners and riders are expected to clear.

Scotsirish to win for me, and I think Uncle Junior at 4/1 (1/4 1-2-3-4) is as close to an each way bet to nothing as you'll get all week. That's how I'll be hedging Scots.

Further down, Sizing Australia, Garde Champetre and A New Story are collectively responsible for the last FOUR winners of this, but two look past their peak, with the exception being Sizing Australia.

He's actually quite young for a cross country horse, at ten years old, and has been given what might be described as a surreptitious preparation for this, running down the field in a hurdle, and then a never-put-in-the-race third in another hurdle contest over two miles.

Sizing Australia may well make the frame again, but I can't see him beating the Mullins pair.

Garde Champetre is a place lay. There will be plenty in front of him this time. A New Story is interesting, but at fourteen is too old now, even for a race like this!

Aside from A New Story's 25/1 success when he was massively over-priced (I, and plenty of geegeez readers, backed him), the highest winning odds since this race's inception in 2005 was Sizing Australia's 13/2 last term. The other five were all 4/1 or shorter.

One with a similar profile to A New Story - same trainer, same background - is Dancing Tornado. He's been backed (Pricewise) and I've had a small saver.

But, seriously, don't over-think it. Scotsirish will win and Uncle Junior will make the frame at an each way price (just about).

Both are around 4/5 a place the first four and, for money buyers, this must be seriously tempting.

4.40 Cheltenham - David Nicholson Mares Hurdle

Again, not a race to be over-thunk. Quevega will win, quite probably, and there are more likely races at the Festival to try to find shorties to beat.

For each way players, the combination of a shortie and a lot of dead wood makes for a potential value proposition on the place part of those bets.

Unaccompanied must be doubtful to run here, and even if she did, two and a half miles is too far for her anyway.

The one that interests me most in this context is the Paul Webber-trained Alasi, a mare very much on the upgrade.

She ran in this last year, when sent off at 33/1, and finished a respectable fourth, beaten eleven lengths. This year, she's in much better form and can improve into the places. She has good ground form, which I think will be important this week, and won a Grade 2 hurdle (same as this) last time out.

Those generous bookie types are offering around 14/1, which is 7/2 a place, or 5/4 if you abandon hope of collecting on the win part, and that's better than the 1/2 on Quevega.

The other way to play it might be to try a Quevega-Alasi forecast. You'll get paid higher odds of course, but you'll probably kick yourself if Alasi finishes third.

5.15 Cheltenham - Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase

And we close the opening day, if you see what I mean, with the novices' handicap chase. A new race in 2005, some trends are starting to manifest themselves.

Six of the seven winners had won no more than once over fences, and all winners had finished first or second last time they ran in a chase. These are classic signs of protecting a handicap mark!

Ignoring the inaugural winner, King Harald, the subsequent six have all been rated in the 130’s, and this looks to be where to focus attention.
Seven year olds have won five of the seven renewals, and the only horse younger than this was French-bred Chapoturgeon. Ignore British or Irish bred horses aged younger than seven.

Finally, pay close attention to Ferdy Murphy, who has already won this race twice in its seven years.

All that said, I don't like Nicky Henderson's Triolo d'Alene, and will be looking elsewhere for my wager. He's seven pounds worse off with Ackertac for a two length beating of that rival, who also buggered up the last fence when it was between the pair.

Ackertac races close to the pace which is often an advantage in these sorts of races, where all sorts of carnage can be happening behind; and he's got Cheltenham Festival form.

Specifically, he was sixth in The Race for the Potatoes (Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle) last year behind Bobs Worth. The trip looks fine, and the ground ought not to both him either. From the highly respected Nigel Twiston-Davies yard, Ackertac is another I've backed already, and I think he has an excellent each way chance here.

Hunt Ball is set to carry twelve stone two, which will be a lot less then when bearing both jockey and owner into the unsaddling enclosure during his recent uber-purple patch.

The Hunt Ball has won six of his seven races since late November and just keeps on improving. He despatched Cool Friend the last day off a mark of 127 and has now been allocated 142.

When you consider that he started this run off 69 (!!!!!!), that shows you how much he's improved this season. Again, connections are respected. Kieran Burke used to ride for the excellent Pat Rodford but has now - aged just 26 - taken over the training license.

I suspect that Pa Rodford is still involved in a 'director of football' sort of role, and I like these guys. In fact, I was going to include Rodford in my Winning Trainers manual before his retirement. I am, as you might imagine, tracking the protege's progress... and he's done well so far.

But he's not for me. Too obvious in a race like this.

Aside from Ackertac, the one that smacks of a plotplotplot, is David Pipe's Battle Group. This horse was fourth in the Coral Cup last year, behind Carlito Brigante.

This term, he's been mixing chases with hurdles with a view to, I suspect, protecting his handicap mark.

Of course, the 'capper's nobody's fool, and Battle Group lugs 138 despite a fencing record of 2U2. Since his second second - again, if you see what I mean - he's run twice over hurdles.

The first of them was over a totally inadequate two miles at Cheltenham, where he was taken wide all the way round, the jockey never used the whip, and he was beaten eleven lengths at 33/1.

In his last race, the Grade 2 Game Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell, over a more suitable two and a half miles, he was ridden in last most of the way round and stayed on to be fifth, albeit beaten 22 lengths by the winner, though only thirteen by the second.

I've just watched his three chase starts as well. First time, when presumably they hoped they had a nice staying chaser, he wasn't beaten far by Fists of Fury (who was beaten half a length by Sir Des  Champs in a Grade 2 last time!).

Then he was victim of the softest unseated rider you'll ever see. If you've got a Racing Post subscription or can find this on the video archive elsewhere, see if you agree with me that Johnny Farrelly should have been banned for pulling a horse. Absolute shocker. Racing Post comment was 'unseated rider several strides after fence'. Exactly.

Then he was again never put in a three runner race at Southwell.

Now, clearly, I could be woofing up the wrong wisteria. But, at 33/1 with Coral, I've got a few notes each way that says I might not be.

And that, dear friends, is day one of the magnificent Cheltenham Festival.

Fear not if you find fortune's fickle fingers have finagled your funds, as there are yet twenty more opportunities for that inconstant damsel to court you anew.

Conversely, should the lucky lady's light have shone brightly upon you in the first quarter, remember that she has many suitors to attend, and you may not be her favourite by week's end.

[I solemnly promise not to try poetry here again...!]

What are your day one fancies? Leave a comment below, and let us all know. (There I go again...)

Matt

p.s. Entrants for the Cheltenham prize draw - win £250 cash - currently have a one in five chance of scooping some money. If you haven't entered, you really should! And here's how you can.