Tag Archive for: Mares’ Hurdle

Cheltenham Festival 2024: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2024: Day One Preview, Tips

We're back! The 2024 Cheltenham Festival is here, and I can't wait! Finding winners will, in the main, be tricky; though value is lurking everywhere. The job of our race previews will be to combine those two challenges to try to give you something to cheer and something back at the end of it. I've asked a few smart judges to help me with the previews, so as well as a trio of races each day from yours true, there's one daily preview each from our own David Massey, plus Rory Delargy, Gavin Priestley and John Burke. All the fun of the fair - let's crack on!

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. The big roar that accompanies this race sometimes feel like a racecourse full of punters has been holding its collective breath for 361 days (or 362 this time around). And the traditional curtain-raiser is usually a very satisfying conclusion to the prior hiatus, pitching together a raft of exciting unexposed types all with even grander aspirations down the line.

In the recent past, the Supreme has not been the Irish benefit it might appear at first glance. Yes, Barry Connell won it last year with the sadly absent from the Festival this time Marine Nationale, but before that Nicky Henderson prevailed in both 2022 and 2020 - and 2016 - and Tom George took the major honours in 2018. Odd years Ireland, even years UK? Probably not, but that's a nice symmetry to remind us that the domestic runners have performed well in recent renewals.

Since 2011, 0nly the very talented monkey Labaik won this without having also scored the time before, and he was 25/1 when the tapes rose (he should have been almost that price to actually jump off). You're not getting north of 4/1 about Firefox who was similarly vanquished the last day. Of course, his supporters will protest that he was up half a mile in trip and didn't stay; maybe that's right, and his form at this range - notably when beating the presumed superstar Ballyburn the time before - stands very close scrutiny for all that it was 'only' a 24-runner maiden hurdle. Let me put it another way: while it won't necessarily stop him winning, Labaik is the only horse this century to win the Supreme having finished further back than third on his prep run. If you still like Firefox (I do, just not his price), you may be heartened to know that he, like Labaik, is trained by Gordon Elliott.

Willie Mullins naturally saddles a phalanx of blue bloods, and his first choice normally wins. Indeed, going back to Ebazayin, a 40/1 scorer for Mullins in 2007, that was his only - and therefore first choice - entry. He's since won another five Supremes, each ridden by the stable jockey (Ruby four times, Paul Townend once). That Paul has opted for Tullyhill is a potential red herring this year because Mystical Power has a retained jockey - and there is nothing to separate them in the market as I write (Sunday afternoon).

Mystical Power runs in the green and gold of JP McManus, but is co-owned by Susannah Ricci and Mrs John Magnier. He's by Galileo out of the star mare Annie Power, which perhaps explains the ownership triumvirate - or at least two-thirds of it. He's three from three to date - a bumper, a novice at the Galway Festival, and the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer in January. Winners of the Moscow Flyer include Douvan, Vautour, Min, and more recently Impaire Et Passe. While the form of this season's renewal has yet to be franked, Mystical Power bolted up by seven lengths and he is yet to be extended.

Closest to A Dream To Share in last year's Grade 1 Punchestown bumper was Tullyhill, who got off the mark at the second time of asking over timber having been second on debut at odds of 1-8. Ouch! The bridge jumpers knew their fate early, mind, as he overraced from the start, jumped poorly throughout and was spent by the second last, eventually beaten a whopping 24 lengths that day. Of course, that effort was all wrong as he showed when waltzing home by seven in a maiden field of 25 next time, and more materially when dotting up by nine in a Listed novice on heavy ground last time. That form is questionable in the context of a race like this, though he beat Jigoro by slightly further than did Mystical Power, and he couldn't really have won any more easily.

If you liked Ballyburn for this, his representative is the Henry de Bromhead-trained Slade Steel, who was third and second to the Gallagher Novices' Hurdle favourite in a bumper and a Grade 1 novice hurdle respectively. De Bromhead has ostensibly a poor record in this - though a great record at the Festival - but closer scrutiny reveals that of his eight previous runners, Captain Guinness was brought down two out when still tanking along, Ballyadam finished second, and Inthepocket was fourth, all since 2020 and from just four entries. Henry is perhaps the best target trainer of all in recent Festivals, his hit rate at the last five being a scarcely believable one in seven.

 

 

A bit of a wise guy horse on the preview circuit has been Mistergif, another Willie wunner, this one in the double green of Munir and Souede. Rated 75 or so on the flat in France, he failed to win in nine starts before trying hurdling. Under the new code, he was fifth in a Listed race on his debut and then second in a conditions event, both at Auteuil; but the horse that beat him on that final French start is zero from five (fallen three times, third once) since. True, since transferred to Closutton he's won his maiden by a street, but again that form looks shallower than the toddlers' end at your local baths. He's pretty exposed is this chap and he's shown very little. Of course, he can win, but there's now't in the book to say he should.

Let's go back to the Brits and those even numbers. Nicky Henderson bids for a 2020/22/24 treble with Jeriko Du Reponet, in the same McManus ownership as Mystical Power. Winner of his point by 11 lengths from The Other Mozzie, a relatively modest chap under Rules to this point, he was a big talking horse before making his debut at Newbury at the start of December. He won there, and twice subsequently, but without looking a star on any of those occasions. That said, the most recent effort was in the Grade 2 Rossington Main where the horses beaten into second and third ran 1-2 in the G2 Dovecote next time; that adds some much needed ballast to Jeriko's form.

On numbers, the Seven Barrows runner has plenty to find; but when we consider that Nicky also had second placed Jonbon behind Constitution Hill in 2022 and third placed Chantry House (and fifth placed Allart at 33/1) behind Shishkin in 2020, as well as third placed Buveur d'Air behind Altior in 2016, it's fair to say that he has unleashed some serious horsepower in the Supreme. In fact, overall, 17 of Henderson's 32 runners in the race finished in the first three - take that, Willie! There's a leap of faith required with this chap that there isn't with some of the Irish Grade 1 horses but that's reflected in their respective odds. One does need to keep a weather eye on the yard's form, however, as there have been a fair number of P's on the recent Hendo score card. He hasn't had a runner, let alone a winner, since 2nd March and has just one entered pre-Cheltenham, at Plumpton on Monday.

 

What about Tellherthename for Ben Pauling? It's at this time of year that we hear plenty of "the best I've ever trained" bluster, and Pauling has gone on record as naming this fellow in that category. The son of Malinas, a £200k purchase at Cheltenham this time last year having won his Irish point, was a close second on debut behind the subsequent Grade 1 winner Jango Baie, and followed that up with a 14 length verdict over Lucky Place, who went on to narrow Grade 2 defeat subsequently. Clearly not right when reopposing Jango Baie in that G1 he was pulled up on the soft ground there before beating the geegeez.co.uk syndicate horse Dartmoor Pirate into second at Huntingdon last time. The Pirate has since run a mighty fourth of 17 in the famously competitive EBF Final last Saturday, with Pauling novices filling out the first two places there! Tellherthename was withdrawn from the Betfair Hurdle on account of the ground and connections will want it to dry out as much as possible for their charge. With the forecast being for persistent drizzle and light rain, official going of soft is a very short price. That would have to count against this lad.

One who would be right at home in the mud and at a massive price, too, is Favour And Fortune, second in the aforementioned Aintree G1, and a winner on heavy previously. He was just touched off in a muddling three horse race last time (heavy) with this tempo expected to be more his metier. He was thumped in the Champion Bumper here a year ago (soft), however, so just might not be good enough.

I'm struggling to make a case for any of Kings Hill, Supersundae and Gold Dancer. The latter pair are both trained by Willie Mullins and both came with ostensibly good French form. Gold Dancer could conceivably step forward significantly from his first run for his new trainer but he'd very much need to.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Closutton holds the key to the pace. Mistergif led on his sole Irish start though that was a maiden hurdle only, while Tullyhill has led the last twice. Firefox has also led in two of his last three, likewise Tellherthename. Even to fast looks the most likely pace setup on the scant evidence we have.

 

 

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This looks very open between the top four or five in the market, none of which would be a surprise winner. Mystical Power and Tullyhill are a coin toss for which one finishes ahead, my suspicion being that Mystical Power might edge that side bet. Firefox requires a leap of faith that the longer trip was the reason for his below par effort last time; even if you buy that, questions can be asked as to why he was tested over that extended range; he's a very good horse - duh - but plenty short enough in the betting for my liking. And that brings us to Jeriko Du Reponet and Slade Steel. The former has his trainer's long term Supreme record very much in his favour, but his trainer's recent form very much not. On balance, unless he drifts to a double figure price, I'll let him beat me - if he did drift he'd be playable win only, I think. Slade Steel has a top trainer and top form behind Ballyburn (who was a strong favourite for this before defecting to the Gallagher). He'll be finishing strongly and looks a solid each way alternative to a 'nothing between them' top of the market.

Suggestion: Back Slade Steel e/w at 5/1 or bigger, four places if you can find 'em

Tix Pix: Tix is a smart multi-race bet placement tool that is free to use. You can find it here. There are guaranteed million pound daily placepot pools and £50,000 jackpot pools, with stakes as low as a penny. For obvious reasons (all on the same horses), Tix Pix cannot select the horses I intend to play. Instead, I'll share where I think I'm going narrow or deep. In this race I'll be playing A's only on jackpot and brace for an early bath. Check out Tix here >

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. More Grade 1 action, you lucky people, as the first foray over fences, the Arkle Challenge Trophy, follows the Supreme. Somewhat downgraded by the absence of a number of high profile horses, most recently and notably Marine Nationale, the reigning Supreme champ, we're left with a competitive but trappy wagering challenge.

As I write there are four horses priced at 5/1 or shorter, headed - just - by Gaelic Warrior. Trained by Mullins for Ricci, he was presumed for the Turners after his romp in the Grade 1 Faugheen Novices' Chase over two and a half miles at Christmas. But then came Leopardstown and the Dublin Racing Festival (DRF) where, in the Grade 1 novice chase there, he just ran a shocker. Mistakes with his fencing likely contributed to him dropping out of contention from before three out, and he was well beaten when unshipping Paul Townend at the last.

It's not obvious, to me at least, why he's running here rather than the longer race on Thursday, and he's a very shaky favourite in my book after that lamentable showing last time (at odds of 4/7). True, he had solid form prior to that, but was never in the Arkle conversation. Perhaps the defection of Marine Nationale has to do with his arrival in this slot, but I just don't like his prep at his price. The first time hood doesn't look a plus either - Willie Mullins has saddled 30 horses with a hood at Cheltenham in the last five years and only one of them won:

 

 

Willie also has Il Etait Temps, soundly enough beaten by GW at Limerick in that Faugheen but a winner either side, most recently in the G1 Irish Arkle, also at the DRF. He too wears a hood here and, though more likely to run his race than Gaelic Warrior, I feel, his best race is not as good as that one's, and only a fine margin in front of Found A Fifty, just a neck back last month. Found A Fifty has led in each of his four chase spins and will face pace contention here; that might compromise his chance. In any case, he looks a little way behind peak showings from the other pair mentioned so far.

My Mate Mozzie was only a length and a half behind Found A Fifty but hasn't raced this year, and his best form looks to be on better ground.

The fourth sub-5/1 musketeer at time of writing is Hunters Yarn, and he's a third wheel for Willie. It didn't really work out for Hunters in the County last season, sent off 11/2 but finishing mid-div, and he's been beaten twice from three starts since: he was second in a G2 novice hurdle at Fairyhouse last Easter before kicking off over fences with a tumble at the last when clear. Most recently, he bolted up on his second attempt at a beginners' chase and, while he's generally a very good jumper, he made a horlicks in each of those chase starts. Even in what looks a sub-par Arkle, he doesn't seem quite good enough on the evidence to date.

Remember Quilixios? He was a very smart juvenile hurdler and the Triumph winner in 2021. In the following season he was bested three times by Teahupoo at two mile trips before having a long (nearly two years) spell on the sidelines. Back this season as an older, stronger horse he's won two of three chases, both ungraded. In between times, he was thumped in the G2 Florida Pearl over three miles. Whilst it's perfectly fair to assume he didn't stay there, the balance of his post-injury form requires a lot to be taken on trust regarding retained ability.

Mention this in hushed tones, but is it possible that this year's Irish cohort are not as good as normal? The best of the home guard could be Jpr One, trained by Joe Tizzard. Joe is in good form - two notable winners at Sandown's big weekend fixture - and this one has a nice bit of experience after four chase outings. He unseated at the last over course and distance in November, when seemingly having the race in the bag, but had a win before and since. The 'since' comprises two runs, a third place in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase when making a mistake two out, and a win last time in the G2 Lightning Novices' Chase on very soft ground at Lingfield, narrowly from the re-opposing Matata. Matata is one of the pace angles in the field and that may see him do too much too soon, whereas Jpr One tends to be handy but off the speed.

Nigel Twiston-Davies saddles both Matata and Master Chewy, the latter one of the more experienced chasers in the field. On his run behind Champion Chase hopeful Elixir De Nutz - beaten just a length and a half getting nine pounds - he is better than a 25/1 poke. And there are reasons to throw out his defeat behind Jpr One last time: specifically, he was almost brought down at the first as Matata veered right down the fence causing Djelo to fall and Master Chewy to take back in evasive fashion as the meat in the sandwich. He was unsure at his next couple of fences before regaining some composure but it might be that his race was run.

Authorised Speed doesn't look slick enough at his obstacles, and probably not good enough in any case.

Arkle Pace Projection

Lots of speed, most obviously from Found A Fifty and Matata, but also Gaelic Warrior, Jpr One and Authorised Speed - perhaps others, too.

 

 

Arkle Chase Selection

I really don't like this race from a betting perspective. You have to make excuses for the horses at the top of the market where their price doesn't allow for such latitude. And you have to be imaginative to see the horses lower down the lists beating the ones at the top. But perhaps this is a race for imagination play. In that spirit, I'll take the Brits to beat the Irish, primarily through Jpr One and Master Chewy.

Jpr One has the best domestic form but not by much; he also has a trainer in form and can handle conditions. Master Chewy is a bit of a punt but, if ridden patiently, he might be able to pick up the pieces... and if they go a million on the front then he could just nick the whole enchilada. Of course, he's priced as though he has little chance and that may be how it transpires. Caveat emptor.

Suggestion: Try one or both of Jpr One 9/1 and/or Master Chewy 25/1 each way and cheer Blighty against the raiders.

Tix Pix: Spreading out all over A, B and C in what looks a trappy race. Check out Tix here >

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

Previewed by Gavin Priestley, FestivalTrends.co.uk.

The Ultima is the first handicap of the meeting and is a hyper-competitive race that can throw up some very useful performers. Last year's winner Corach Rambler, which was doubling up in the race having scored in 2022, went on to win the Grand National on his next start while the horse he beat by a neck, Fastorslow, went on to win a Grade 1 at the Punchestown Festival subsequently and now sits second in the betting for Friday's Gold Cup.

Although they've been getting closer in recent times (2nd and 4th last year), the Irish don't have a great overall record in the Ultima (0/38 since 2007) and you have to go back to 2006 and Tony Martin's Dun Doire to find their last winner. That doesn't mean Ireland doesn't have a say in the race, though, as Irish-bred horses have been responsible for the last five winners and ten of the last 11 (exception French-bred).

A top six finish last time out is very important (14 of the last 15, exception unseated rider) as is a run at Cheltenham previously (all of the last 17 winners, with Dun Doire the last horse to win without course experience) while all of the last ten winners have been rated 139+ (an emerging trend has seen eight of the last ten renewals go to a horse rated 139-148).

All of the last 16 winners had raced at least once since the start of Newbury's Coral Cup Handicap Chase meeting the previous November.

Applying these trends leave us with a shortlist of 4 horses: Monbeg Genius, Victtorino, Chianti Classico & Lord Du Mesnil who range in age from a 6yo to an 11yo.

20 of the 24 winners this century have been aged 7-9yo but there's been an 11yo winner in 2021, a couple of 10yo winners (2007 & 2010) plus a French-bred 6yo in 2018. The three winners before the turn of the century were all 10 & 11yo's so I'm not sure age is too much of an issue for this race.

What is worth noting, however, is that 11 of the last 14 winners had raced fewer than ten times over fences and interestingly nine of the last 12 winners had worn some king of headgear (cheekpieces, hood or blinkers). Five of the last 13 winners had run in the Ultima Handicap the previous year.

If we look through the form of the four horses on our shortlist we can see that one of them was third in this race last year, just two lengths off Fastorslow, has run only eight times over fences and his trainer reaches for the first time cheekpieces. The Irish-bred 8yo, MONBEG GENIUS, has long been my fancy for this race and despite his relatively underwhelming run at Kelso a couple of weeks ago that did come on the back of a long break since his excellent Newbury Coral Gold Cup Handicap Chase third where he had picked up an injury. He raced strongly until tiring from the second last at Kelso and I'm hoping that he may have just needed the run that day. His trainer Jonjo O'Neill won the race three times between 2009-2014 and horses that had run in the Coral Gold Cup at Newbury that season won in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2023.

He ticks every box and looks a typical Ultima winner. I retain the faith in him and think he has an excellent chance at a decent price.

Ultima Pace Projection

Just an even gallop in prospect in all likelihood despite the large field.

 

 

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Back MONBEG GENIUS 1pt EW 14/1 (6 places)

Tix Pix: A's and B's and not straying far from the top of the market.

Check out Tix here >

 

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Previewed by Matt Bisogno. In what amounts to a tragedy for fans of the sport, Contitution Hill has been suffering with an infection that has sadly ruled him out of this year's Champion Hurdle. He was long odds on to retain his crown having cruised home by a wide margin in his only run of the season, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. I'm daring to dream that he might show up at either or both of Aintree and/or Punchestown, but realistically it might be better to get him right and go again in a (please God) busier 2024/25 campaign. It should be remembered that he's only seven, so time is very much on his side.

Anyway, enough of the no show, and on with the show show. Every leading man needs a capable deputy, and there can be no finer understudy at the entire meeting to step into the big man's shoes than State Man. Like the absent champ, he is also seven and his record reads well. Very well. F11111121111. The '2' was behind Connie Hill last year, and nothing else has got to within three lengths of him in eight - EIGHT! - Grade 1's before and since the lowering of his colours a year ago. He normally races handily or on the lead, though was held up in last year's Champion Hurdle presumably in the hope the hill found out the Hill, he's won G1's on all ground types softer than good, and he's a country mile clear on ratings. What's not to love? Well, his price maybe, because it's a very short price, though that's not to say it doesn't represent value.

If any horse can stop State Man's procession to glory it might be Irish Point, in the Robcour colours and trained by Gordon Elliott. This time last year, while State Man was getting closest to Constitution Hill, Irish Point was winning a Grade 3 novice hurdle at Naas. He's since won the 2m4f Grade 1 Mersey Novices' at Aintree, and then this season he's added a Grade 3 at Down Royal and the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. So far so good. But that Leopardstown race is contested over almost three miles and, as the name suggests, it was contested at the end of last year. Not since then have we seen this fella. It was a terrifically convincing score there but in a slow time beating (relatively) slow horses. I don't see how that makes him second pick for a Champion Hurdle. But I've been wrong about such things many times before.

Iberico Lord was supplemented for this after the defection of stablemate Constitution Hill, and he has serious handicap winning form this term. Specifically, he won the Greatwood over course and distance in November and then the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in February. The third and fifth from the Betfair finished 1-2 in the Imperial Cup at the weekend so that form looks solid. In between times, Iberico Lord was well beaten at Ascot and perhaps it was a combination of the slower pace and faster turf that did for him. It should be at least a little bit softer here but whether there's much pace in the race remains to be seen. Whilst he's obviously progressive, he's got about a stone and a half to find on official ratings if the favourite runs to within a pound or three of his mark.

It's possible that Luccia could be sent on in a bid to force a stronger pace, she herself having made all in the race when her barn mate Iberico flopped; but that's not her normal run style. And nor should a 140-rated mare be in the same conversation as a 165+ gelding.

The wonderful veteran Not So Sleepy is hard as nails and still retains plenty of ability even at the ripe old age of twelve. His form in the race is P565 and, though he did win the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth, that was 94 days ago and a weaker G1 you'll struggle to find. Please don't misunderstand me: I love this bloke; I just don't want to bet him to win a Champion Hurdle.

Willie also has Zarak The Brave, who is at least vaguely credible for the frame at a price. His form this season is 1P1, wins in the Galway Hurdle (off 145 in a field of 19 on goodish ground) and a Naas Grade 3 in a small field on soft sandwiching a flunk when he was found to have been post-race clinically abnormal. I'm not entirely sure what that means but perhaps it was a fibrillating heart; conjecture aside, if he can bring his A game he is one of the few within a stone of State Man on ratings.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

Either or both of Not So Sleepy and Luccia could go forward, but there's not a ton of obvious early speed.

 

Champion Hurdle Selection

This is all about State Man. He's a very unsexy price but might still be value at around 1/3. You can expect Iberico Lord to shorten if Nicky's team have shown anything prior to this race, and he looks the one with the most upside - he needs to be as the second lowest officially rated in the field and with 26lb to find on a strict interpretation of the book. I don't really fancy Irish Point, who in my view would have been better placed in the Stayers' Hurdle even if his owner does have Teahupoo for that. No, this is State Man's to lose. And I don't expect him to lose it.

Suggestion: Watch State Man win well. And/or back him to do likewise.

Tix Pix: If State Man is beaten, a lot of jackpots will go pop. Including mine. He's never raced on heavy

Check out Tix here >

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

Previewed by John Burke, VictorValue.co.uk. Let’s begin with what look like some of the key race trends.

Favourites (Clear & joint) have won 3 of the last 10 renewals of the Mares Hurdle and have performed 44% worse than market expectations. Eight of the last 10 winners had an Official Rating of 147 or higher. Six of the last ten winners were trained by Willie Mullins (4) and Henry De Bromhead (2).

Last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Lossiemouth, made a highly impressive return to action here on Trials Day. While she's the clear favourite and the most likely winner, stepping up to 2m 4f poses a question mark on her stamina.

Lossiemouth’s nearest market rival, stablemate Ashroe Diamond, boasts an impressive record of five wins from six starts against her own sex. If the favourite falters due to stamina, Ashroe Diamond could capitalize, although the fitting of a first-time hood for a return to 2m 4f would be a slight concern. 

Love Envoi, winner of the Mares' Novices Hurdle here in 2022, finished a 1 ½ length second to Honeysuckle in this race last year. Although she hasn't been at her best this season, she was a 9 ½ length runner-up to Lossiemouth in the International Hurdle here (2m 1f) last time. We know she seems to thrive at the Festival and the fitting of first-time cheekpieces could improve her performance against Lossiemouth. Each-way claims remain.

The Henry de Bromhead pair of Telmesomethinggirl and Lantry Lady shouldn't be dismissed outright. Telmesomethinggirl, who returned to hurdling this season after a stint over fences, looked rusty on her seasonal return at Leopardstown but was a lot better when a 1¼ length 2nd of four to Zarak The Brave at Naas last time. It’s worth remembering that she was going well when brought down two out in this race in 2022. Lantry Lady, who falls into the "could be anything" category, boasts a perfect 2-2 record over hurdles with wins on heavy ground. The 2m 4f distance should bring out more improvement in her. Although Rachael Blackmore appears to prefer Telmesomethinggirl, Jack Kennedy is a capable substitute. Both of Henry de Bromhead's mares present each-way opportunities. The same trainer also saddles Hispanic Moon.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

An even pace is most likely, perhaps even a slow one. That said, plenty of owners and trainers are represented by multiple runners so they may send a 'hare' forward to chase. Regardless, it's not easy to see this being quickly run.

 

Mares' Hurdle Selection

The outcome of the race largely depends on Lossiemouth's ability to stay the 2m 4f distance today. If she manages to do so, she will outclass her rivals. However, her tendency to be keen raises a doubt about her effectiveness over longer distances. Excluding Lossiemouth, the race appears wide open. last year's runner-up, Love Envoi, is a contender for the places once again. However, I lean towards the Henry De Bromhead duo of Telmesomethinggirl and Lantry Lady. While Rachel Blackmore seems to prefer Telmesomethinggirl, Lantry Lady shows more potential for further improvement, making her the more intriguing option.

Suggestion: Lantry Lady – 0.5pts each way – 33/1 @ Bet365

Tix Pix: A's, B's and C's in here in search of a result, I think. Check out Tix here >

Join Victor Value - Geegeez Special

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4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter, Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

Previewed by David Massey.

I was delighted to be asked by Matt to contribute to the Geegeez previews this week, and was even more delighted when he asked me to look at one of the key handicaps each day. Looking forward to working on the Ultima for Day One, imagine my horror when, instead, he gave me the Chinese puzzle ball that is the Boodles. Many thanks to our Dear Leader for his generosity! [Sorry mate! - Ed.]

The Boodles. Plot race, right? Just back the one that’s been given three quiet runs and a mark that’s well below what it’s really capable of. Well, have a look at the price of the winners over the past ten years - just one winning favourite, every other winner bar one returned at double figures including a 25-1 winner, three 33-1 winners and Jeff Kidder at 80-1, who had started out in the August of the previous year and was having his fifth start over hurdles. Stats, schmats. 

My starting point for this is Milan Tino, who wouldn’t fit many of the trends but has been given a chance by the British handicapper off a mark of 126, which looks very fair based on his French third to Jigme in a Grade 2 at Auteuil last October. Jigme went on to win the Grade 1 Grand Course later in the year and that form, along with what he’s achieved in two starts at Cheltenham this winter, make him a solid option. Physically, he’s looked a horse that wants further already to my eyes, and it can’t be a bad thing that he’s already shown form over a bit further than two miles, such stamina likely to come in handy on ground expected to ride soft on the first day after Sunday’s rain. 

Of the Irish, it’s tempting to go in with Willie’s Batman Girac after an eyecatching run at Leopardstown last time, one that certainly suggested the Boodles would be his next stop; but, despite some near misses, this is one race at the Festival that Closutton have yet to get the better of, and I’d prefer Willie Durkan’s Eagle Fang, who comes from the Naas race that has thrown up Brazil, Jazzy Matty, Aramax and Band Of Outlaws in recent times. The way he came clear in the closing stages, in heavy ground, was a good step up on anything he’d achieved previously and whilst this will be his sixth run over hurdles already, which you could argue means other, more lighty-raced types could improve past him, he’s more battle-hardened and should run his race. At 16-1 and bigger, with extra places on offer, that makes plenty of appeal. 

Back in fourth at Naas was Nara, who really has looked a Boodles project on her two starts on Irish shores so far. A ready winner on her only start in France at Auteuil (last April!), she looked very much in need of the experience when fourth to Nurburgring at Fairyhouse in December, her novicey jumping holding her back from finishing any closer than a one-paced fourth; but she travelled and jumped better at Naas, looking some sort of threat between three out and two out before her early exertions saw her flatten out late. The reapplication of the hood looks a smart move, as she was a bit keen pre-race and I don’t expect to see her in the paddock at Cheltenham until the bell for jockeys-up goes, at which point it’ll be straight in and straight out again. There should be more to come once she learns to take her racing better, for all you’d struggle to say she’s been thrown in here. 

If we’re looking for the Hail Mary, a phrase our editor Matt loves so much, then it has to be Latin Verse. He looks so unlike a Boodles winner it’s untrue - this will be his seventh hurdles start and he’s already raced in an all-aged handicap at Ludlow last time out, one which he won by no fewer than 19 lengths. A 10lb rise for that win not only looks lenient - Timeform expected him to get a stone and more - but it creeps him right into the bottom of the handicap. If you’re a lover of figures (and we are, of course) he comes out well on both form and time. In some ways he reminds me of last year’s fifth Mr Freedom, who took a totally different route from most Boodles campaigners and was having his tenth start of the season, having taken in a couple of handicaps, by the time he got to Cheltenham, but it didn’t stop him from that strong finish (and might have done better still but for his pilot almost coming off turning for home). I suspect Latin Verse can similarly show that experience is no bad thing when it comes to the Boodles. At 33-1 and six places, he has to be worth a few quid each-way. 

Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection

Not a map to place too much store by, because many can be expected to adopt a different run style now they're actually doing their best!

 

 

Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection

Try 28/1 Latin Verse or 20/1 Eagle Fang each way. 

Tix Pix: Depending on how much bankroll I've got left, I'll take as much A action as I can afford, and back up with some B's. There will be hedge opportunities on Betfair if it's worthwhile. Check out Tix here >

 

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5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

Previewed by Rory Delargy. The National Hunt Chase has changed markedly in character since gaining Grade 2 status and being shortened in trip. What used to be a race for Corinthian amateurs in which anything could – and frequently did – happen, has become a classy contest dominated by Irish shamateurs (that is to say you can’t book one without a buff envelope), and there is no point in the old plodders turning up any more. In some ways that’s a shame, but the farrago of the 2019 running where the few who finished were legless was a pathetic last hurrah for the race of old.

On that cheerful note, let’s dive into the latest renewal, with just the seven runners meaning there’s no point looking for an each-way angle into the race. All seven of the runners have a chance and the first thing I want to say is that the old advice that Derek O’Connor’s mount already has a 5lb advantage is not to be believed. O’Connor has been a fine rider over the years but there are no weak links in the riding line-up here, and this race ought to go to the best horse at the trip, pure and simple.

O’Connor rides Corbett’s Cross, who was a big talking horse before running out here last year, and he was brought down in his prep race for this when the rider was given his traditional ‘feeler’ at Fairyhouse. That is hardly ideal, and while he was a respectable second in the Grade 1 Neville Hotels (Fort Leney) Novice Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas, that form hasn’t really been tested, with the winner injured and Flooring Porter (10 lengths behind Corbett’s Cross in third) reverting to hurdles. He has a chance, for sure, but is of no great interest at around 2/1 given his imperfect preparation.

Embassy Gardens, like Corbett’s Cross, was a big fancy (ante-post favourite) for the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago, but pulled up before running down the field at Punchestown. He’s won both starts over fences in the style of a useful prospect, but his defeat of Sandor Clegane at Naas saw him race on the best of the ground as the runner-up persisted with racing on the chewed-up inside, and impressive as it was, it’s very hard to put a figure on. As such, he’s short enough to be backing at current odds.

On a side note, both Corbett’s Cross and Embassy Gardens wear a hood for the first time, and while there have been several winners at the Festival to wear a first-time hood (Benefficient, Jezki and Western Warhorse to be precise), none since that trio have been successful. On the other hand, many of Willie Mullins’s runners at Cheltenham over the years have worn earplugs which have not been declared, so the figures only tell part of the story.

Salvador Ziggy has achieved as much as the pair above but is a more realistic price, with his second under 12st in the Kerry National a fine effort for a novice. He comes here after an abortive trip to run in the Grand National Hurdle at Far Hills in October, and while the absence might be a worry, he was second in the Pertemps last year off an identical lay-off. He appeals as best value of the Irish contingent.

Mr Vango has it to do on the ratings and the other three all met in the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot last time, where Henry’s Friend held off Kilbeg King and Apple Away. It may look surprising that the winner is now the outsider of that trio, but he is the one least likely to stay this six-furlong longer trip, and I’m in agreement with the betting market, for all I like the horse.

Kilbeg King got low at several of his fences at Ascot but still stayed on dourly at the end to force the winner to pull out all the stops. Prior to Ascot, Kilbeg King had jumped better when a creditable third in the Grade 1 Kauto Star at Kempton, his jumping allowing him to get into contention in the home straight having been out-paced in the middle of the race by the brilliant winner.

If he can jump like he did at Kempton, then he ought to run really well for Anthony Honeyball, who was unlucky not to win this race with Ms Parfois a few years ago (winner Rathvinden would have been demoted under new whip rules). Like Ms Parfois, Kilbeg King will be ridden by Will Biddick, who has been the best English amateur at Cheltenham over the past decade and more.

APPLE AWAY is seemingly held on Reynoldstown form, but I thought she was better than the bare result at Ascot, jumping really well on the whole and trying to battle back when getting squeezed out at the final fence. She was picking up again at the line, and appeals to me as the sort to relish a thorough test of stamina. It’s worth recalling that she was a Grade 1 winner over hurdles at Aintree last April, and it’s typical of Lucinda Russell’s horses to only show their very best form in the spring. She got involved in an ill-advised pace duel when second to Grey Dawning in the Grade 2 Hampton Novices’ Chase at Warwick and my belief is that she can improve enough for the step up to 3¾m to turn the tables on the pair who beat her at Ascot.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

Mr Vango is a forward goer, so too Apple Away; but the small field means they'll likely be steady away over this extended trip.

 

 

National Hunt Chase Selection

Selection: 1pt win APPLE AWAY at 10/1
Exotic Mixers:
Kilbeg King & Salvador Ziggy (1/4 pt combination exacta)

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And that's a wrap for Day 1 at the Cheltenham Festival 2024. Hopefully this has been an entertaining read, and with a little luck, there's a winner or three in its midst. We'll all be back to do it again tomorrow - see you then.

Be lucky!

Matt



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Gala Marceau to spearhead Alexander’s Mares’ Hurdle squad

Owner Kenny Alexander is set to unleash a two-pronged assault on the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, with both Gala Marceau and Telmesomethinggirl attempting to add to Honeysuckle’s two famous victories in the Cheltenham Festival contest.

Trained by Willie Mullins, Gala Marceau has just stablemates Lossiemouth and Ashroe Diamond ahead of her in the ante-post betting for the Grade One event and was runner-up in the Triumph Hurdle at Prestbury Park 12 months ago.

She finished third when making her seasonal return at Doncaster recently, but tasted top level success over two and a half miles in Auteuil’s Prix Alain du Breil last May and connections feel a return to further can see her improve on her Town Moor reappearance.

“We were very happy with her and Danny (Mullins, jockey) said she took a bit of a blow after the last,” said Alexander’s racing manager Peter Molony.

“He thought he would definitely have been second and closer to the winner without that and he wasn’t overly hard on her to try to get second as the big day is in a few weeks time.

“The step up in trip is going to help her, she stayed the extra distance well last year in Auteuil and we really think that will play to her strengths.”

Telmesomethinggirl may be as big as 25-1 in the betting, but Molony has been encouraged by reports from trainer Henry de Bromhead since she finished second at Naas last month.

Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning at Cheltenham aboard Telmesomethinggirl
Rachael Blackmore celebrates after winning at Cheltenham aboard Telmesomethinggirl (Michael Steele/PA)

The nine-year-old is already a Cheltenham Festival winner having been part of De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore’s respective six-timers at the showpiece meeting in 2021, winning the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle.

She was also in the process of running a huge race the following year in the Mares’ Hurdle before being brought down two out and having spent a year struggling over the larger obstacles, is back at the discipline in which she is most proficient.

“We were over the moon with her performance at Naas. The first day she ran (at Leopardstown) she was still rather gross and I think as she has got older, Henry has found it harder to get her fit,” added Molony.

“Last year was a complete waste of a year and she just didn’t take to the fences, that is a year that can be scratched.

“Henry and his team are very happy with her and I think if she is back to her best, she is going to give all the other ladies something to think about. She’s a very high-class mare in her own right at her best.

“Rachael came in and said it was a case of how far, not if (when she ran in the race previously) and if she gets back to that level she could take a lot of beating – she is certainly a wonderful each-way price.”



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Snowden confirms Mares’ Hurdle date for You Wear It Well

You Wear It Well remains on course for a crack at more Cheltenham Festival glory in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle after running with credit in defeat at Doncaster last weekend.

Jamie Snowden’s charge produced her best effort as a novice at Prestbury Park when making all to see off 20 rivals in Grade Two company last March, scoring at generous odds of 16-1 under Gavin Sheehan.

She kicked off this term by getting the better of Luccia at Wetherby over two miles before being a well-beaten favourite in the rearranged Fighting Fifth at Sandown.

Snowden opted to step her up to an extended three miles in the Warfield Mares’ Hurdle, with a change of tactics deployed, as she was held up at the back early on.

You Wear It Well came through to challenge Marie’s Rock at the final flight but just found the 2022 Mares’ Hurdle winner too strong on the run-in.

“I think we just got beat by a better horse on the day in that set of circumstances,” said Snowden.

“It was our first try at the trip and the ground was a little bit quicker than ideal. It turned into a little bit of a sprint from three out and we had a bit of ground to make up.

“But Marie’s Rock is rated 150, we’re rated 140, we were carrying the same weight and we only got beat a length and a half, so it was a decent performance and I was glad to get that run into her, it was a nice run.

“The Mares’ Hurdle is the plan and we might look at the Warwick race (February 10) on route.”



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Ashroe Diamond on course to sparkle at Cheltenham

The Blue Blood Racing Club are relishing the prospect of Ashroe Diamond taking on some of the best mares around at the Cheltenham Festival, following her decisive Grade Two triumph at Doncaster last weekend.

Trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by the handler’s son Patrick, last season’s Grade One scorer took a huge step forward from a third-placed return in the Hatton’s Grace to book her ticket to the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle in good style in the Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle.

The seven-year-old easily got the better of Nicky Henderson’s well-regarded Under Control, with high-class stablemate Gala Marceau a place further back in third in South Yorkshire.

Having been cruelly denied a run at the Festival at the 11th hour 12 months ago, connections are now hoping for a smooth run-up to Prestbury Park’s showcase meeting to enable a shot at a race that has always been high on the list of assignments for this term.

“It was a brilliant day and I suppose coming back in trip for her after the Hatton’s Grace was the key to her jumping well and Patrick was able to go forward a lot more,” said James Fenton who manages the Blue Blood Racing Club.

“Myself and Patrick discussed it about an hour before the race and he rode her textbook to the way we decided on – not a thing went wrong, which is great. You would have to be impressed with her and the way she did it so professionally.

“We have to go to the Mares’ now. She was unlucky not to get to Cheltenham last year and hopefully now, with the travelling over to Doncaster and back and stuff, she is a more settled mare in that regard and all roads now lead to Cheltenham.

“We said at the start of the season, when we decided not to go chasing with her, that she deserved another crack over hurdles and we would aim for the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham and work our way back.

“The run in the Hatton’s Grace brought her on to Doncaster and now we go on to Cheltenham and hopefully the plan is working – and that is all down to the great team at Closutton.”

While Ashroe Diamond was enhancing her reputation on Town Moor, Lossiemouth was laying down her own Mares’ Hurdle marker at Cheltenham with a blistering display in the Unibet hurdle.

The two Closutton inmates dominate the top of the Mares’ Hurdle market and, although highly respectful of Rich and Susannah Ricci’s Triumph Hurdle-winning starlet, Fenton is embracing the challenge competing in a Grade One event at the Festival will bring.

Ashroe Diamond with connections at Fairyhouse
Ashroe Diamond with connections after winning at Fairyhouse last season (Gary Carson/PA)

He added: “Lossiemouth is a great mare who we are willing to take on and we will enjoy our day out.

“To have a mare good enough to take on the likes of Lossiemouth is brilliant and may the best mare win, that’s what the game is about.

“There is no point going over and just expecting to win everything at this level; you are going to have to take on the best and Lossiemouth is one of the best mares in training at the moment, so we will look forward to taking a cut at her, we won’t be running for cover.

“The build-up to it will be exciting now and all the members of the racing club are chuffed to bits to have a mare of that quality to go to a big race like that.

“To go to Cheltenham with a mare with a bit of a squeak and to get her into the first three would be amazing.”



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Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2023: Day One Preview, Tips

We're back! The 2023 Cheltenham Festival is here, and it's going to be a belter! 28 races, almost all of them head-scratching puzzles in terms wagering possibilities... and that's just as it should be! Let's get straight to it.

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

Half past one on the middle Tuesday in March is when the roar reverberates around the Cotswolds as racing regulars and occasionals alike release 361 days' worth of waiting for the first of seven races on the first of four days of fiercely contested battles.

The Supreme is sometimes won by a clear cut favourite - think Appreciate It or Douvan - but, more often than not, the waters are muddier and the multiple returned for finding the winner more appealing. This year falls into the latter bracket, and surely bookies all over the country will be desperately trying to 'get' Facile Vega. That is not, of course, because he can't or won't win; but rather that his price probably over-states his chance currently. Here's why...

Ignoring the fact that he was a terrific bumper horse - winning Grade 1's both here and at Punchestown - and the fact that he's Quevega's son, his actual hurdling form is not out of this world. A maiden win against a field that has managed a solitary handicap hurdle victor, off a perch of a relatively lowly 106, from 27 runs between them, was followed by a much more impressive Grade 1 score where he beat three subsequent winners. That legitimately put Facile Vega in short at the top of the market; but, since then, he's run a very poor race over the same course and distance in a G1 at the Dublin Racing Festival (DRF). Excuses have been proffered for that clunk: he was messed about with by High Definition, he went too fast, etc. But they didn't go crazy fast, and High Def mainly messed with himself as he tumbled at the fourth. Word is (take it or leave it, obvs) that FV was lame for a week after Leopardstown so, if you've backed him ante post you'll see that as legitimacy and hope, and if you haven't you'll see it as a concern and a reason to look elsewhere. Such is the way of value betting...

I've backed him at shorter than he is now and I am not remotely inclined to go in again!

But assessing the remainder is also tricky. Marine Nationale was the early season poster boy - and he might perhaps be the late season heartthrob, too, except that we've not seen him since early December; his form has taken a few dents in the interim. In fairness, he's an unbeaten-in-four Grade 1 winner so it will be no shock if he's the best of these but that 100-day layoff would be the longest by a winner since Captain Cee Bee in 2008 and only the second triple-digit absence since at least 1997.

Il Etait Temps has to be a player. Only fifth and fourth behind Vauban in the four-year-old Grade 1's at Cheltenham and Punchestown a year ago, Willie Mullins has had a novice hurdler with plenty of experience to work with this term; and he's been rewarded with wins either side of getting closest to Facile Vega at Christmas. Of course, most recently Il Etait Temps won 'that' race in which HD dived and FV bombed. Although he was a bit awkward early in transit that day, he powered through the line and was just on ten lengths clear of second-placed Inthepocket, Dark Raven a neck back in third. Despite his relative hurdling experience, IET can look a bit slovenly at a flight for all that he's generally safe across them.

High Definition is obviously a very high class ex-flat horse; he was favourite for the Dante as a three-year-old and ran second in the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup and third in the Group 1 Coronation Cup last year. The problem is that, as obviously and unsurprisingly fast as he has been, he jumps like, well, like a Dante favourite. I think he's very likely to be found out in a race as hot as this, especially with other pace players from the get go.

Both Inthepocket and Dark Raven have a place chance on that DRF form: they each brought unbeaten in three records to the G1 party there and each emerged with a degree of credit, Inthepocket having found himself exactly that at a key point in the race. Crucially, both are entitled to be wiser for their first exposure to top class company.

What of the British challenge? The most obvious contender is Tahmuras, winner of a maiden hurdle at Chepstow, a Listed at Haydock and the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown. There have been six subsequent winners from his maiden, and the Tolworth form is standing up too: the third there won a G2 next time, the fourth won a novice and was then second in the same G2, and the fifth - Authorised Speed - easily reverted to winning ways back in shallower waters. He's won on soft and good to soft so no ground concerns. The question is how the UK level compares with its Irish counterpart.

Rare Edition was very disappointing when only second in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon, a race won in 2020 by Shishkin en route to Supreme glory. He apparently scoped dirty after the race and there has been some whispering about back spasms, both of which appear to have now been resolved. Trainer Charlie Longsdon is bullish about his chance and, on the evidence of the book, he's a place possible at least... if the British form holds its own.

The talking horse in recent days has been Diverge, who won a 22 runner maiden hurdle by 23 lengths. None of the eleven horses to run again since that race have won, and only one hit the frame: the form is weak regardless of how good Diverge might turn out to be. He's inexperienced, too, and for those reasons, as the Dragons say, I'm out.

Olly Murphy runs two in the race, Chasing Fire and Strong Leader, and my preference of the pair is for the former. He's unbeaten in a point, a bumper, and three hurdle races and, though untested in Graded company, he's kicked to the kerb everything he's faced hitherto. I feel like the quicker they go the better for him, as he looks a very strong stayer.

Fennor Cross is a massive price but is a dual Cheltenham hurdle winner this season, the second of which was in the Grade 2 Supreme trial. That was in mid-November, however, and he's not been seen since as, presumably, he needs good ground - the underfoot for both those course scores. Alas, it looks unlikely that will be the description for race one, day one.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Likely to be quick, as forward-goers like High Definition and Rare Edition collide with an ocean of adrenaline coursing through the jockeys' veins for the first rising tape of the week.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

I don't have a strong opinion here except that the favourite is poor value. Note, I don't think he is sure to lose, just that his win probability may be lower than his price implies. That's a general take through all of the races: any horse can - and, at Cheltenham, often does - win any race. So we're looking for something that might have a better chance than implied in its price. In this race, I think Il Etait Temps is a fair price, especially if you can find four each way places; and it wouldn't surprise if Tahmuras ran a big race either, especially with his trainer in terrific form.

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The first chase of the week is a speed test for novices, and frequently advertises the claims of a potential Champion Chaser of the near future. This season, battle lines are drawn between Britain and Ireland and, as with the Champion Hurdle two races later, team captains are Messrs Henderson and Mullins.

For the home squad, Hendo saddles Jonbon, second (third if you include yawning daylight) in last year's Supreme behind Constitution Hill. In the absence of that monster, Jonbon won the G1 Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree, beating a chap called El Fabiolo. This season, the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old has won all three chase starts, mostly in the manner of a good'un; that said, he was more workmanlike than striking in his Festival prep in the Kingmaker at Warwick. There, he eventually eked out a five-length margin over Calico in a match. The form of that race has received a boost with the runner-up - a twelve-length winner in Class 3 handicap company before Warwick - going in again at Doncaster in a £20k Class 2 handicap since. Obviously, this is a different kettle of gravy, but there's also every chance that Jonbon was under-cooked for his preparatory spin: he'll be cherry ripe now.

Pop back to that Aintree G1 and we find our other joint favourite. There was little between Jonbon and El Fabiolo in Liverpool and they may again be hard to separate. Willie's contender has had two chasing starts, winning by 19L and 10L, the latter in the Grade 1 Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival. Handy enough throughout, he pounced on trailblazing Dysart Dynamo approaching the second last and had enough energy left to go clear of a three-way picture for the places between Banbridge, DD and Appreciate It.  If they all stand up it's hard to see the placed horses reversing with the winner, in spite of the argument that the furlong and a bit shorter trip might favour the pace horse. That said, El Fabiolo did not impress with his jumping at Leopardstown.

Those that fell or unseated last time are 1 from 14 in recent times with nine of them sent off 11/1 or shorter: it's not obviously a positive for the chance of Saint Roi but nor is it a terminal knock. This lad was fourth in last year's Champion Hurdle and won a Grade 1 novice chase at Christmas, so he's oodles of class; but he was hurdling for four seasons including his time in France which sometimes makes it more difficult for horses to make a chasing shape thereafter. He's bang there on talent but that leaping has to be a concern.

The rest are unlikely to be good enough.

Arkle Pace Projection

There looks to be plenty of early speed in this line up with each of Ha d'Or, Dysart Dynamo and Jonbon leading in their most recent three races. Jonbon is expected to sit slightly off the fiercest of the sizzle.

Arkle Chase Selection

A race that will probably play out in line with the market expectation of a duel between Jonbon and El Fabiolo. If El Fab's jumping holds up, I think he'll win, and if it doesn't I think Jonbon will win. I don't really see Dysart Dynamo sustaining his front-footed charge and prefer Saint Roi to travel round in his own time and pick up the each way pieces. Not especially a betting race if you haven't already played, I don't think.

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2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3 handicap, 3m1f)

The first of nine handicaps and I'll tell you now that my thoughts will be (mercifully) brief. This race has been won by the home team exclusively since Dun Doire and Tony Martin wrested it away in 2006. They actually don't run many - just three darts this year - and I'll be fielding against them, perhaps carelessly.

My shortlist is Corach Rambler, The Goffer (though he is Irish), and the Tizzard pair, Oscar Elite and The Big Breakaway.

Corach Rambler won the race last year and will again be played late; he was much the best that day and is only six pounds higher now. A fine fourth of 15 in the Coral Gold Cup (Hennessy as was) in November was his most recent run, though that was 108 days ago. Joes Edge defied a 114 day absence in 2007 though such extended layoffs are exceptional when it comes to Ultima winners.

The Goffer won a Grade A handicap chase at Leopardstown last time off a mark of 138. He's got 149 here, as a result of both that win and the recalibration of Irish marks to British ones; while that seems a hefty enough elevation to overcome, the step back up to an extended three miles could be in his favour. He's a novice and so remains somewhat unexposed.

I had a good bet on Oscar Elite in this last year. That partially paid off - the place part specifically - as he finished third. Given he was subsequently found to have bled from the nose, and he is now just a pound higher in the weights, and that he won last time out, I like his chance again. He won't want it too soft, though. Tizzard's other runner, The Big Breakaway, on the other hand loves the wet. He was third in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase two years ago and a game second in the Welsh National at the end of last year - carrying 11-13 - last time. He jumps, he stays, he handles the track and ground and he's very much a runner for me.

Ultima Pace Projection

It will be frenetic, due to the field size and the number of jockeys having their first ride of the week. Luck in running is needed, and usually patience, too.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Skybet are paying EIGHT places on this race, and a couple of others are seven places deep. That gives us plenty of chances and the first name on the team sheet is Corach Rambler, whose run style lends itself to hitting the frame even without extended places! I'm slightly on weather watch with Oscar Elite, very much liking his chance on good to soft but less keen on softer. I'd rather take shorter when knowing the ground with him. In the end, I'm swerving The Goffer on the basis of the Irish record, which will of course be the wrong thing to do one of these years; but I definitely want a bit of the The Big Breakaway with the extended places as well.

Suggestion: With as many as eight places on offer, you can take two or three each way and potentially be rewarded on all places while trebling your chance of hitting the win jackpot. In that context, back any/all of 6/1 Corach Rambler, 11/1 Oscar Elite (wait for ground news is my advice), and 14/1 The Big Breakaway.

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3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m 1/2f)

The undoubted highlight of day one is the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle. Since just under two hours before last year's Champion Hurdle, Constitution Hill has been close to, or outright, favourite for the 2023 renewal. The reason for that was his destruction of a solid-looking Supreme Novices' Hurdle field in the 2022 curtain raiser, where he easily despatched Jonbon et al in a very fast time. True, both Dysart Dynamo (joint favourite with CH that day) and Mighty Potter, unbeaten in four since, both failed to complete; but that is, after all, a fairly important part of the challenge.

Since sauntering home a year ago, Nicky Henderson's six-year-old son of Blue Bresil has bolted up by a dozen lengths from Epatante in the G1 Fighting Fifth, and hosed in by seventeen lengths from the same rival in the G1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. He's won his last four starts, all Grade 1's, by 12L, 22L, 12L, and 17L - and had won his previous start by 14L. His speed figures are just about off the scale and he can take a position wherever in the field meaning tactics are not a worry. Given he's normally an excellent jumper, there are essentially no holes in Constitution Hill's profile whatsoever and he's a very worthy odds-on favourite.

If this year's Champion Hurdle is not to be a procession, the most obvious candidate to make a race of things is State Man. Since 2009, Nicky Henderson leads Willie Mullins - in whose care State Man resides - 5-4 and, in search of the equaliser, Mullins' Man has very strong credentials. At least, in any other year he would have. To wit, he's unbeaten in six straight completed starts, a sequence that includes last year's County Hurdle followed by four consecutive Grade 1 races. In that quartet of G1 scores, he's earned closing comments as follows: "easily", "comfortably", "easily", "comfortably".

Well, something has to give, and the market is fairly confident it will be the British champion lording it over his Irish counterpart. I'm also confident that will be the case having not been overly impressed with what State Man found off the bridle in the County, the only time he's needed to be pushed out to the line. But I don't have enough threes to try to steal some ones at the prevailing odds. So how else to play? We'll come to that. First, what of the supporting cast?

Willie has more than just State Man; he also saddles last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Vauban, and he's an interesting contender. While Constitution Hill and State Man are likely to be on or close to the pace, Vauban has been ridden a lot more patiently and, as a result, has finished his races off well in respectable defeats to State Man. If State Man tries to force things against the favourite - and it's unlikely the Closutton team will be riding for a place - then Vauban may be the one to hoover up any crumbs.

The second possible in that context is I Like To Move It, whose Greatwood and Kingwell Hurdle wins have advertised his 'dark horse' claims. True, he was well seen off by Marie's Rock in the Relkeel, though that was over an extra half mile; and he was no match for State Man in the County a year ago. He has some impressive performances to his name, most of them on genuine good ground, but I can't quite shake that County clunk from my memory banks.

Not So Sleepy has a fair record in the race: 5th two years ago and 6th last year, but he's eleven now; and I don't give Zanahiyr or Jason The Militant any material chance.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

Any of Jason The Militant, Not So Sleepy, or the big pair of Constitution Hill and State Man could take them along. Most likely is that the top two in the betting will mark each other behind the rags, with Vauban expected to be ridden cold at the back of the field.

Champion Hurdle Selection

The win market is all about Constitution Hill, who better ratings judges are suggesting is the best we've seen in a very, very long time. If that's right, he's a fair enough price for those who like playing big at short. Each way is not an option in a seven-runner race generally, still less with such a domineering jolly; but 'without the favourite' is a way in. That market has its own shortie, too, in State Man but I feel Vauban 'without' is a credible alternative given how the race is likely to pan out. If State Man and Constitution Hill have at it from far enough out, it's possible that SM cracks; Vauban wasn't far behind him in steadily enough run G1's in Ireland and can come through for silver.

Suggestion: Back Vauban without the favourite at anything better than 7/2 (4/1 with Hills at time of writing).

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

There has been plenty of chat on the Maremite Hurdle - some love it, some hate it. Me? I'm in the love camp, and I don't really understand the naysayers who I feel are only rehashing the argument, which has surely had its day now, that it denigrates the Champion Hurdle. Let's just accept the new world and move forward - and what better time to do that than in a year which features the winners of THREE Champion Hurdles?

Well, why aren't they running in that race then, I hear (one of) you cry! The answer, of course, is trajectory; and that is the byword for attempting to solve this wagering puzzle. Cast back to 2020, and a six-year-old Epatante was winning the Blue Riband while forty minutes later Honeysuckle, also six, was winning this race. Five-year-old Marie's Rock had won a Listed mares race at Taunton, and Love Envoi was a year away from making her debut.

In 2021, Epatante could only finish third in the Champion Hurdle, behind Honeysuckle. Marie's Rock had recently run third in a mares' Grade 2 at Doncaster and Love Envoi was about to win a Wexford bumper on her first start. A year later, last year, and Honeysuckle again won the Champion Hurdle with Epatante her nearest pursuer on this occasion. Marie's Rock had graduated to winning the Mares' Hurdle and Love Envoi the Mares' Novices Hurdle.

And so to this term. Honeysuckle, heretofore unbeaten in 16 Rules races and a point to point, is now without a win in her two seasonal spins. Third to the improving - and very good on soft ground - Teahupoo over this sort of trip, and then second to the improving - and just very good - State Man over two miles is hardly poor form; but it is a step down from where she was previously. The question then is whether Honeysuckle is regressing slowly enough to still have something in hand of Epatante, herself steadily on the downgrade, and of the progressive Marie's Rock and highly progressive Love Envoi: that's what makes this such a fascinating conundrum.

Epatante has been thumped twice in Grade 1's by Constitution Hill this season; and then beat a field of inferior mares in appropriate fashion. She's only run once at this longer distance, when winning the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle easily last season. Her main market rival that day fell at the last as Epatante was looming upsides, but she looked to have had him covered at that point. She is holding her form fairly well and is unexposed at the trip.

Marie's Rock has been a revelation since winning a handicap hurdle in December 2021: from that point on, she's won five of six - pulling up having been hampered on the other start - a sequence that includes the Mares' Hurdle and Punchestown equivalent (both G1) last season and the Relkeel Hurdle on her only start this year. My reservation, aside from the very light 2022/23 campaign, is the substance of her form: in last year's Mares' Hurdle she beat 150-rated Echoes In Rain, who doesn't seem to stay this far, and a bunch of 140-something mares; at Punchestown, she beat a conceivably over the top Epatante (who had run 2nd in the Champion Hurdle and won the Aintree Hurdle in the previous six weeks); and in the Relkeel she beat an array of dodgy geezers the likes of which would not look out of place outside an East London boozer (I should know!). She might win - she's just about favourite after all - but her rising star may have just about reached its apex to my eye.

As for Love Envoi, she needs the rain to continue her own ascent. She has won eight of her nine starts to date, including last year's Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle here and her only defeat - second to Brandy Love - was on yielding turf. She's tough, loves the mud and has improved her top Racing Post Rating in each of her last seven races; it's not a big price that she'll improve on it again - the question is whether she can do it to a sufficient degree to usurp those above her. Trajectories, eh?

Brandy Love has been very lightly raced but is a Grade 1 winner at this range, when seeing off Love Envoi who, by contrast, was having her sixth battle of last season. I don't expect her to confirm the form with Harry Fry's mare.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

This looks like it will be run at a sensible even gallop.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

A fantastic race in terms of stalwarts of the game and in competitive terms. Finding the winner will be difficult. Having backed Honeysuckle, I didn't think she'd face such a deep field - and I don't think connections did either. But she's still just about the one to beat, along with Epatante. I'm against Marie's Rock - fully mindful that it might look preposterous post-race - and, if it is soft, I'd want Love Envoi onside, too. It's that kind of contest!

Suggestion: The each way 'bet to nothing' (it doesn't exist, but you know what I mean) is 9/2 Epatante, who looks sure to be bang there; and I'm going to have a small bit on 9/1 Love Envoi as well, if the ground is soft.

*

4.50 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Fred Winter, Grade 3, 2m 1/2f)

Too difficult. I've backed loads of them, which is ridiculous, because I haven't got a clue who wins. The average winning SP since 2012 has been 27/1, and there have been nine winners priced 20/1 or bigger since the race's inception in 2005; so the market doesn't have a clue who wins either! The suggestion, then, is to ignore anything shorter than 16/1 and try to make a case for two or three darts, win only, for small change.

In that spirit, I offer the following:

Afadil - a Paul Nicholls French import a la Sanctuaire, Qualando and Diego du Charmil, all of whom won this for PFN

Metamorpheus and Jazzy Matty - with thanks to Gavin Ryan for this snippet: this pair both ran in the Naas race that has thrown the winner of the last four Fred Boodles. So, too, did Byker, Sir Allen, and Morning Soldier - and the one I had most on for this prior to that race, Almuhit. He blew the start and was left 30 lengths!!!

Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection

A good half dozen possible pace angles here, headed perhaps by Mighty Mo Missouri. Expect thrills and spills.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection

I cannot with clean conscience propose you bet anything in this race on my say so. I've backed a few, including the three mentioned above. 

Suggestion: One for a blindfold and Mr Felt Tippy, your magic marker

*

5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 6f)

The four miler is not quite the race it was, and not just because it's only three miles and six furlongs in distance these days. This oldest race of the Festival and monument to the Corinthian nature that characterised National Hunt racing for a million years has undergone more nips and tucks to its race conditions than <insert your preferred surgically enhanced pantomime dame here>.

Its current format, borne somewhat legitimately out of the ugly optic that was the 2019 renewal, where just four of 18 starters completed and 'encouragement' was outside of what might be termed the comfort zone for even the most stoic of country sports fans, comprises more than just a reduced race distance. That range truncation implies a reduction in the number of fences, and there are indeed two fewer - 23 versus the previous 25 - and, additionally, no horse rated below 120 or with fewer than two chase starts (including one in the current season and one over about three miles or more) will qualify. The upshot is that a race that drew 17-20-18-16-18 runners up to 2019 has, since the amendments, attracted 14, 12 and, last year, just six runners. It's another smallish field this year, with ten going to post.

The market has been headed for a long time by Gaillard du Mesnil, a hyper consistent horse but only an occasional visitor to the winners' enclosure. To wit, in 13 Rules starts he's finished in the places on all bar one occasion, but has won just four times - and only once in eight starts in the past two years. That's got to be a concern about a horse priced around the even money mark, for all that many of those form lines give him a clear edge on his field. He was third in the Brown Advisory Novices' Chase last year and filled the same position, in a field of 27, in the Irish Grand National a month later. This season, GdM followed up a good second to Mighty Potter over an inadequate two and a half miles with one of those elusive wins - and by eight lengths no less - against Churchstonewarrior, a surprise defector at the final declaration stage, in a three mile Grade 1 at Christmas. He was again beaten by the Potter when dropped back to the Potter's trip territory in a G1 at the DRF, and will clearly relish this more stamina-emphasised test. But did I mention that he doesn't win all that often?

The key to Chemical Energy appears to be in the turf. His form on good ground is 112111, while on softer he's 140854. It's bound to be softer than good and he has some stamina questions to answer, too. He's not for me.

Mahler Mission ran a fair race (7th of 16) in last year's Albert Bartlett and, though he was whacked in a novices' chase at Cheltenham early in the season, that was surely a sighter on ground much faster than ideal. More recently he's won a beginners' and then ran a gallant second to Churchstonewarrior.

Minella Crooner was a good staying hurdler, running second to Minella Cocooner in the Nathaniel Lacy at the 2022 DRF. He's one from four over fences though was also second in a Grade 2 in early season. The balance of his performances is not at the level of some of his rivals, and he might not want it too soft either. However, an interesting outsider to consider is Tenzing: he's still a maiden after three chase starts but that trio includes finishing close to Gerri Colombe and Ramillies before being beaten a little further last time by Mahler Mission. On the pick of those runs, he could again challenge for the frame.

Best of the (limited) British defence is probably Mister Coffey, a perma-bridesmaid trained by Nicky Henderson. He's finished second in five of his last six starts, a run that includes the G1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase of last year and the Kim Muir a month later. He looked a strong stayer at last season's Festival and this test might be just the ticket.

Of the big prices, Coolvalla has nothing like the ratings to be in the shake up at this level. And yet, he's won handicap chases by 19 lengths and 17 lengths the last twice, has proven stamina, jumps well, and comes here nicely rested. He might outrun his 66/1 odds.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

A few possibles for the lead, most notably Mahler Mission, Minella Crooner, and perhaps Bellatrixsa. At the other end of the field, Chemical Energy will probably be patiently ridden by that master of the waiting ride, Jamie Codd.

National Hunt Chase Selection

On official ratings, Gaillard du Mesnil is clear of his field and he obviously has the talent to win; but his inability to put races to bed, even if they have been higher level races, has to be a worry at the price. Against him, there is a clutch of horses separated by only a few pounds on ratings, and it will be the one that adapts best to this somewhat unique test who is the each way bet. That might be the ultra-consistent Mister Coffey, who has placed Festival form to his name.

Suggestion: Back Mister Coffey each way at 9/1.

*

It's a fascinating start to the week, with top class horses aplenty and deep, deep fields in the main. Good luck with your betting in the opening quarter!

Matt



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Fry hoping Love will prevail in Festival prep

Harry Fry is concentrating solely on Love Envoi as his star mare prepares to complete her Cheltenham Festival preparation at Warwick on Saturday.

The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle is shaping up to be one of the events of the whole week with dual champion hurdler Honeysuckle confirmed to join Love Envoi and possibly the likes of defending champion Marie’s Rock and Epatante in the line-up on March 14.

However, while admitting it will be highly competitive, Fry’s focus remains firmly fixed on getting the winner of last year’s mares’ novices’ hurdle at the Festival to peak again at Prestbury Park next month.

Love Envoi ridden by Jonathan Burke clears a fence before going on to win the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle during day three of the Cheltenham Festival in 2022
Love Envoi ridden by Jonathan Burke clears a fence before going on to win the Ryanair Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle during day three of the Cheltenham Festival in 2022 (Tim Goode/PA)

“Whether its Honeysuckle, Epatante or Marie’s Rock, it’s going to be a fiercely competitive race,” Fry told Tattersalls Cheltenham.

“All we can do is worry about getting Love Envoi there in tip-top form. On the day, we can think about who is in opposition and go there with confidence in our mare that she can come out on top.”

The seven-year-old has suffered just one defeat in nine starts and is unbeaten this season following two victories at Sandown.

She is now set to go to post for the Virgin Bet Warwick Mares’ Hurdle searching her second Listed prize of the season in a race won last year by eventual Mares’ Hurdle champion Marie’s Rock.

“We started off this campaign at Sandown in a handicap hurdle, purely because there were not that many options open to her,” continued Fry, whose charge was a graduate of the 2021 Tattersalls Cheltenham March Sale.

“She was a course winner in Grade Two company, so we thought it was an ideal starting point over the two miles. We were delighted when she was able to carry all that weight against the boys to make a winning start to the campaign.

“The races very much slotted into place from the turn of the year. Returning to Sandown for a Listed mares’ hurdle was always the plan then this race at Warwick is another Mares’ Hurdle ‘trial’.

“It was won by Marie’s Rock en route to winning the Mares’ Hurdle last year, so is a proven stepping-stone to the Festival. Hopefully we can follow in her footsteps.”



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Marie’s Rock options open, with Festival picture ‘changing daily’

Connections of Marie’s Rock are set to leave a decision over her Cheltenham Festival destination as late as possible.

The star of Middleham Park Racing’s National Hunt string won the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park in 2022 and is as short as 5-2 to defend her crown following a successful reappearance for the Nicky Henderson-trained mare in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day.

That race gained a new favourite on Tuesday when connections of three-time Festival winner Honeysuckle confirmed the Henry de Bromhead-trained nine-year-old for the two-and-a-half-mile event, while Marie’s Rock’s stablemate Epatante, Harry Fry’s Love Envoi and the Willie Mullins-trained pair of Brandy Love and Echoes In Rain are others in the mix for what is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the week.

However, she also holds an entry in the Stayers’ Hurdle later in the week and the ever-changing picture of both possible races has the Marie’s Rock team contemplating a step up to three miles for the Paddy Power-backed Grade One – a race for which she is priced at 5-1 with the sponsor.

“I saw her this morning and she is in great form – we are really happy with how she is,” said Middleham Park Racing’s Tom Palin.

“She’s in both races, we kept her in both races and are keeping both options open. We are considering both options pretty much equally and the situation seems to be changing on a daily basis at the moment.

“We don’t actually need to make a decision until March 12 which is declaration day for the Mares’ Hurdle. That is only the day we need to come down on a decision and that is probably when I will make it until something becomes painfully obvious before then.”

In possession of the defending champion, Palin is excited about the prospect of being part of a red-hot renewal of the mares-only contest, but admits Marie’s Rock’s dominant display at Prestbury Park in the Relkeel is making the move to three miles a tempting proposition.

“The Mares’ Hurdle is a mouthwatering race this year,” he continued.

“It has been slated over the past five or six years, but I think it is arguably the race of the meeting – how many Grade Ones has that field won?

“It will be a fascinating race and we won’t be afraid to take the challenge on if that’s what we decide at the time.

“It’s just at the back of my mind how well Marie’s Rock saw out the Relkeel when we knew she was a little bit short.

Nico De Boinville and connections of Marie’s Rock celebrate after winning the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle during day one of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse
Nico De Boinville and connections of Marie’s Rock celebrate after winning the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle during day one of the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse (Nigel French/PA)

“At the start of the year I wasn’t really on board with it (three miles), but after that Relkeel we need to see it. She’s bred to get the trip and I don’t think she is a nightmare to settle anymore because Nico (De Boinville) and the team have done a fantastic job.

“She improved a stone if not a little bit more for two and a half and if she does that again moving up, then that puts her bang there in any Grade One over three miles.

“We will be looking at three miles in the not too distant future, if it’s not Cheltenham it will be Aintree, so its very much up in the air and both races at Cheltenham are being considered equally.”

Explaining some of the variables that will make up the decision-making process, ground features highly, as does the well-being of some potential rivals over the extended distance – with many heading to the Festival under a cloud.

He went on: “If it was shaping up to be bottomless on the Thursday for the Stayers’, would it really be sensible experimenting over three miles on really soft or heavy ground. That would also play into Teahupoo’s strengths as well the soft ground.

“But there are also plenty of marginal horses – Flooring Porter, Blazing Khal and Klassical Dream. Those three have all been quoted as being 50-50 to make the Festival.

“So let’s just see how it all pans out. I would love to say it’s definitely this race but the news is changing daily – Honeysuckle was being retired a few days ago and now she’s in the Mares’ Hurdle.

“Lets just see how it all pans out and I would love to be on her side in whatever race we come down on.”



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Honeysuckle team happy to have Cheltenham finale

Connections of Honeysuckle believe the Cheltenham Festival is the right place for their dual champion hurdler to bow out having announced she will have one final run in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle next month.

Having lost her long unbeaten record first time out this season in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream, hopes were high she would return to winning ways at Leopardstown last weekend for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore.

However, she could only finish second behind the Willie Mullins-trained State Man, who won the County Hurdle at Cheltenham last March while Honeysuckle was winning the second of her two Champion Hurdles.

While talk of her retirement circulated, owner Kenny Alexander did not make any rash decisions and took in all the available information from those closest to the mare before deciding she deserved one more run – and a potential clash with two of Nicky Henderson’s stars in Marie’s Rock and Epatante.

Alexander’s racing manager Peter Molony took to Twitter early on Tuesday morning to announce Honeysuckle’s intended target at the Festival.

Explaining the decision to PA Media he said: “I think after Sunday, on mature reflection, most reasonable people would agree she has taken a step back.

Honeysuckle returns after finishing second in the Irish Champion Hurdle
Honeysuckle returns after finishing second in the Irish Champion Hurdle (Lorraine O’Sullivan/PA)

“She still fought her heart out and when Vauban came to take second off her she put her head down and her ears back and went ‘not on your life’.

“So she still has that competitive spirit, she’s still a racehorse and that’s why we’ve decided to give her one last hurrah. She deserves it and Cheltenham would be a lovely place to bow out.”

Honeysuckle was cheered to post prior to the Irish Champion Hurdle, with home supporters and those visiting from the UK keen to see the popular nine-year-old triumph round Leopardstown one last time, and Molony admits it was a special but humbling experience for those associated with the 12-time Grade One winner.

“The whole day on Sunday, strangely enough, even though we got beat, was one of the best days we’ve had on a racecourse with Honey,” continued Molony.

“The reception she got, the cheer when Rachael got legged up, the roars as she cantered down to the start – Rachael said when she got down to the start she had a stupid grin on her face from the huge reception they got.

“Then the reception when she came back – it was humbling and phenomenal. It was a wonderful day apart from the fact we got beat.”

Victory in the Mares’ Hurdle would give Honeysuckle a fourth success at the Festival and Molony believes her place amongst the greats is already secured ahead of one last outing at Prestbury Park.

He added: “The public have really taken her to their hearts and it’s wonderful, so Cheltenham is probably the right place for her to finish her career.

“I think she is amongst an elite band of horses already, she’s been phenomenal and number one thing is let’s get her back safe and sound and hopefully we will have a great day.”



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Honeysuckle to have Mares’ Hurdle swansong at Cheltenham

Connections of Honeysuckle have announced the popular nine-year-old will have one final run in the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival next month.

Having lost her long unbeaten record first time out this season in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse behind Teahupoo and Klassical Dream, hopes were high she would return to winning ways at Leopardstown last weekend.

Trainer Henry de Bromhead and jockey Rachael Blackmore were making bullish noises in the lead up to the Irish Champion Hurdle, a race she had won three times previously.

She was, though, taking on Willie Mullins’ new kid on the block, State Man, who despite having only won the County Hurdle last March when Honeysuckle was claiming a second Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, had risen through the ranks and was sent off favourite.

In the end Honeysuckle finished an honourable second, just under five lengths behind the impressive winner, and talk of her retirement circulated.

Owner Kenny Alexander did not make any rash decisions, took 24 hours to take in all the available information and talk to those closest to the mare before deciding she deserved one more run – and a potential clash with two of Nicky Henderson’s stars in Marie’s Rock and Epatante.

Alexander’s racing manager Peter Molony took to Twitter early on Tuesday morning to announce the decision.

He said: “One last hurrah for Honeysuckle! Barring accidents, injury, illness or extremes of ground she will be prepared for another tilt at The Close Brothers Mares Hurdle Gd1 ⁦@CheltenhamRaces⁩ on Tuesday 14th of March.”



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Epatante ‘still a possible’ for Mares’ Hurdle after Henderson mistake

Nicky Henderson believes Epatante must be treated as “still a possible runner” in the Mares’ Hurdle – despite her not featuring among the initial entries for the Cheltenham Festival contest.

The winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2020 before placing behind Honeysuckle the following two years, Epatante has been given the option of a third crack at stablemate Constitution Hill as one of 17 to put their name in the hat for the Unibet Champion Hurdle on March 14.

But Henderson admitted she should also have been given an entry for the mares-only Grade One 40 minutes later on the opening day card and is keen to point out the supplementary system gives her just as much chance of lining-up in that contest as the Champion Hurdle – and therefore should still be considered as a potential runner for betting purposes

He said: “She should have been entered, she was meant to be entered and as far as everyone is concerned she is still a possible runner because she can be supplemented.

“She should have been entered, it was my mistake, which is embarrassing.

“She is still a possible runner in the Mares’ Hurdle. Just because she is not in it, doesn’t mean she can’t run in it and she has got as much chance of running in it this afternoon as she had this morning.”

He continued: “The supplementary system is very good and she can still be supplemented, therefore she should be considered as an entry in my opinion. It’s my mistake and I apologise, but she should not be excluded from the betting in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson and Epatante during the visit to Nicky Henderson’s yard at Seven Barrows in Lambourn, Berkshire
Nicky Henderson and Epatante during the visit to Nicky Henderson’s yard at Seven Barrows in Lambourn, Berkshire (Tim Goode/PA)

“Now I have no idea what race the intention of running in is, she should have been entered in both and she will run in one of the two, god willing. I can’t say which it will be because we don’t know and we wouldn’t know even if she had the entries for both races.

“But she must be considered as if she has been entered (for the Mares’), because we can supplement her at the five-day stage and we will do so if that is the race we want.”

Henderson, who is the Champion Hurdle’s leading trainer, could also be represented by Gerry Feilden winner First Street in the opening day feature while the Seven Barrows handler’s only other possible for the Mares’ Hurdle is defending champion Marie’s Rock, who is the current market leader at a best price of 5-2.



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