Posts

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2019: Day One Preview, Tips

The waiting is over and it's showtime for the 2019 Cheltenham Festival: four days and 28 top class races split evenly from Tuesday to Friday. Day One, Tuesday, is set to be run on soft ground and features a cracking renewal of the Champion Hurdle as well as three further Grade 1's, a Grade 2 and - of course - two impossible handicaps. What a start!

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

A race which has been won by some very good horses in recent years. But, as things stand, the 2019 renewal doesn't look the strongest as we head into the Supreme; of course, that is not to say that we won't be hailing an emergent powerhouse at around 1.35pm on Tuesday. Regardless, there will be a winner and it is the job of this post to try to find it.

There are a few common threads in recent Supreme winners, including last day triumph, not ex-flat, not unbeaten over hurdles, and bringing experience of at least four hurdles races to the party.

That narrows things down nicely to a shortlist of six: Elixir De Nutz, Felix Desjy, Grand Sancy, Klassical Dream, Thomas Darby, and Fakir d'Oudairies. Naturally, it won't preclude another winning but, in a year where the race looks absolutely wide open, one needs to take any route in one can...

Klassical Dream may be considered the 'now' horse: he's won his two starts for Willie Mullins and is the chosen mount of Ruby Walsh, who could have plumped for stablemate Aramon. There was a head between the pair in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) last time and that historically strong trial suggests both should be taken seriously. That race was run on good ground and none of Klassical Dream's winning form to date, including in France, has been on anything slower than good to soft (P324P on softer). It is perfectly possible that Mullins has improved the horse out of all recognition but that lack of soft ground winning form makes him too short for me.

The deserted Aramon has finished 312 in Grade 1's this season and won a handicap on the flat in Germany on soft. Whilst this hasn't been a race for ex-flat horses in recent seasons, he brings proven top tier hurdles form to the table and has shown he handles cut. Ruby rarely chooses incorrectly, but the discrepancy between the two horses' price - 9/2 vs 16/1 - is bonkers based on that last day form if nothing else.

Another Irish player on the shortlist is Fakir d'Oudairies, a four-year-old not required for the Triumph Hurdle due to his owner's and trainer's Sir Erec lining up in that Friday curtain-raiser. This fellow fair romped his Cheltenham prep over the distance on the other track (the New Course, Supreme run on the Old), though that form looks only OK, as does his maiden hurdle win previously. The eight pound weight-for-age allowance will help but I don't see him being good enough.

Felix Desjy rounds out the raiding party om the shortlist. A winning pointer, he also scored twice in bumpers before a decent sixth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival. He's shown mixed form over hurdles with his prominent run style leaving him out there to be shot at.

Of the British challenge, Elixir De Nutz and Thomas Darby have collateral form. They clashed in a maiden hurdle at the course in October with Olly Murphy's runner coming out on top. Since then, however, the Colin Tizzard-trained Elixir has rattled off a hat-trick culminating in a soft ground verdict in the Grade 1 Tolworth at Sandown, where he beat Grand Sancy half a length. Each of that hat-trick was achieved in five runner fields where he made all, and that pace-setting approach may be harder to replicate in a field of 18, especially given the presence of possible contention for that position from Brandon Castle and Felix Desjy.

Thomas Darby will be ridden more patiently and he, like the rest of the field, will be trying to pass the trailblazers up the hill. His form is on good ground and outside of Pattern company making it a stretch to envisage him being good enough. In a sub-par year, however, who knows?

Also from the Murphy stable is Itchy Feet, another to have raced exclusively on good ground. He had a verdict over Grand Sancy before running Elixir De Nutz closest in the November Supreme trial at the course. If he handles the ground, he might surprise and 28/1 (SEVEN places with Hills) is a price about which taking the chance is tempting.

Back to the trendy shortlist and the remaining name is Grand Sancy. As will already be evident, his form ties in with others towards the head of the market, with the Paul Nicholls inmate already having run a remarkable eleven times over hurdles. He'll not lack for experience, then, and has faced open handicap company as well as fellow novices. His fourth in a Grade 3 handicap hurdle represents solid form but it also potentially pegs the level at which he can be competitive: he was beaten six lengths off a mark of 136 that day. A win in a slowly run Kingwell ought not to be taken too literally, though he looks quite likely to be in the first seven for those availing of the generous place terms offered by Hills.

Meanwhile, away from the 'trends' list are others with prospects, notably a couple of 'A' teams, Al Dancer and Angels Breath. The first named has been progressive in winning two novice hurdles and two handicap hurdles, most recently the re-scheduled Betfair at Ascot. He has form on soft and looks as though he stays further than two miles, which is a good indicator to winning a Supreme. There are few chinks in his armour aside from the absence of Graded hurdle competition on his CV. He's clearly ready for the step up in grade but whether he's able remains to be seen.

Angels Breath is both lightly raced (i.e. inexperienced) and was beaten last time. Given the Seven Barrows connections it is easy to make excuses on both counts - too easy, perhaps. Even if only 90% he should still have beaten Southfield Stone, a horse without pretensions of being at this level, last time even allowing for spotting that one five pounds. And even though he was considered good enough to be lobbed into Grade 2 company on his hurdling bow, a race which he won readily, he'll find the depth and breadth of this field another game entirely.

Mister Fisher has been winning well enough on flat tracks and in small fields, form which doesn't entitle him to be a single figure price in places to my eye. His Boxing Day win at Kempton ties in with Thomas Darby but he's a good few pounds off the best of these on official ratings at least. Whoever wins will need to improve, but he has to find more improvement than many.

If there's to be a shock on the cards it could come from Gordon Elliott, and Vision d'Honneur. Elliott won this with 25/1 Labaik a couple of years ago and this lad, tongue tied for the first time, could be interesting. On the face of a six length defeat by Klassical Dream and Aramon, he's a bit to find - though not a huge bit - but the case is made due to the difference in underfoot conditions.

In Ireland, Vision d'Honneur has run three times, all on good (good/yielding once). Having finished around six lengths behind Klassical Dream in a maiden hurdle on Irish debut, he won a similar 21 runner event at Punchestown next time, before chasing home Klassical and Aramon in the ex-Deloitte.  But before that, in France, his sole run there was on soft ground in an 18 runner bumper. A fairly well run race by French standards, he came off the bridle relatively early but kept finding and looks to have plenty of stamina. He's tempting.

The rest are probably not good enough, though there could be a shock in the opener.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

A very open and trappy first act of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, and one where it makes sense to shop around for the pick of the bookie offers which prevail on the race. Hills' seven places is an obvious contender, as is Skybet's money back as cash if you lose in this race (first bet, up to £20, check terms!).

The Chanelle Pharma Grade 1 run last month could hold the key here so, while Ruby has sided with Klassical Dream, the 5/1 tops there looks tight for a horse that had nothing to spare over Aramon in second, and little to spare over Vision d'Honneur in an eased off third. The change in going could eke out a change in the finishing order making both the placed horses - each of whom has winning soft ground form - more tempting at longer odds than the winner there.

Suggestion: back Aramon 16/1 betfred (14/1 Hills 7 places) and/or Vision d'Honneur 16/1 bet365 (12/1 Hills 7 places) each way

*

2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The first chase of the meeting, a two mile novice Grade 1, and again it looks a touch below standard, with a number of runners missing the gig due to injury or illness. That lack of star quality has made for a greater quantity of runners than usual and thus for a competitive race where they may bet 5/1 the field on the morning of the race.

The last ten winners all finished in the first two on all completed chase starts; the last nine winners all won last time out; and the last eight were aged six or seven. But then, an odds on favourite has won six of the last seven Arkle's and there's nothing of that relative degree of certainty hereabouts.

The highest rated horse in the field, Hardline, was only third last time. But that was over the JLT trip of two miles five and on good ground; the drop in trip and softer turf are positives for Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown contender, as is his previous Grade 1 score over Getabird at Limerick. Rated only 140 over hurdles, he has a bit to find with some on that measure but he has achieved more over fences so far than most of his rivals.

The best of these over timber was Kalashnikov, second in last year's Supreme on heavy, and a horse crying out for softer ground than he's raced on most of this season. He may, however, also be crying out for a longer trip though my judgement is clouded on that point having backed him for the JLT as early as last November: dough done.

That said, the easier turf will help, and he wasn't as bad as he appeared at Sandown where I'm convinced he was unable to jump out of the very sticky ground there.

It is another example of why we need a 'holding' going description to separate proper wet ground (i.e. when it has been raining) from drying ground which is like trying to pull a welly out of squelchy gluepot turf. These two goings are markedly different and yet both are called soft, sometimes heavy. The only way to tell them apart is to be aware of the weather in the lead up to each race and to mark your own copy of the form accordingly. That's inadequate in my book, though achieving change on that one is likely to take years if indeed it ever happens. Rant over.

Getting back to the Kalash, it's possible he was outpaced at Kempton in the Grade 2 he contested at Christmas; whilst making excuses for horses in Grade 1 races is not a smart idea, there is a credible case to be made for this stiffer test on wetter ground suiting far better. He's gone out of fashion pretty quickly and 10/1 looks big.

The horse to beat him last time was Glen Forsa, a seriously progressive beast but likely flattered by that form line for reasons expounded upon above. Prior to that rinsing of a Grade 1 stick he'd hosed up in a brace of novice handicaps, an unconventional route to favouritism for an Arkle. That's mainly because he failed to break maiden in three novice hurdle starts and never faced Graded company until the last day in what was the re-scheduled Kingmaker. I really like the horse but I don't believe my eyes from that Sandown spin and can't have him at 7/2.

Lalor was a few pounds behind Kalashnikov on hurdling form, though still good enough to win a Grade 1 at Aintree. He's a story horse, and it's impossible not to root for Kayley Woollacott and her team but, absent since early December where he was beaten into third, he too looks plenty short enough.

Paloma Blue was rated a few pounds in front of Duc Des Genievres over hurdles, and he looks a little bit of a forgotten horse in here. In fact, he was around the same level as Lalor but comes here nearly three times the price. Fourth in the Supreme, close up behind Kalashnikov, he has had just two ungraded starts over fences, winning the most recent of them. While that was only a beginners' chase, it featured the JLT 3rd fav, Real Steel (a faller at the last when upsides) as well as a couple of rock solid 135-ish hurdlers beaten further back. It was a Grade 2 strength race and I reckon if it had been called that, Paloma Blue would be no more than 7/1. He's 11/1 in a couple of places.

Duc Des Genievres was rated 146 over hurdles and is felt to be a 151 horse over fences at this stage. That's on the basis of a 15 length win from a 'not off' Tower Bridge, who heads to the Close Brothers with a good chance, and a previous six length defeat by the sadly (because I backed him without NRNB) absent Cilaos Emery. He handles soft ground, he represents last year's winning stable of Willie Mullins, and he has a fair chance.

I couldn't bet Knocknanuss without a faller refund concession: he's a headcase, albeit an extremely talented one. The Irish 'also rans', Us And Them and Ornua, are not without a squeak. The former has run second in small fields on good ground the last thrice, beaten only by the absent former ante post favourite, Le Richebourg, the last twice. On that basis, 20/1 looks pretty big, particularly given his form on deep ground. A mauling in the Supreme last season tempers enthusiasm but even so he's likely over-priced relative to some in the field.

I had a beer with the owner of Ornua earlier in the week, and I confess to not having been aware of his horse's form credentials at the time. A chase debut at Killarney followed by wins at Wexford and Newton Abbot can be viewed as non-standard Arkle preps though Henry de Bromhead has taken a more conventional passage since, winning a Grade 3 and running second in two more, as well as splitting Dynamite Dollars and Lalor in the Grade 1 Henry VIII last time. That's a long absence (early December) to overcome, however, and others have more scope. All the same, he'd not be a shock winner and I wish his connections the very best of luck.

Arkle Chase Selection

Your first 30 days for just £1

It's a wide open affair. I've backed Hardline at 9's but I think he's short enough at 6/1 now. Glen Forsa is likeable but surely limited, Lalor would be one of the stories of the week but has big challenges to overcome, and Duc Des Genievres looks susceptible to one of the better hurdlers showing a similar level of form over fences.

All of which leads me to Kalashnikov (10/1 general), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills). I think they're all over-priced in a wide open race, though picking between them is tricky.

Suggestion: back your choice of Kalashnikov (10/1 Victor 1/5 1234), Paloma Blue (11/1 Coral) and Us And Them (20/1 Hills) each way.

*

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

I may sometimes appear clueless when poring over the form of the conditions races at the Cheltenham Festival, but there are no such doubts when it comes to the handicaps. I am guessing, plain and simple. So please take anything scribbled in the handicap race sections with that note foremost in mind.

A bit of trendage relates that 8 of the last 10 were 7 to 9 years old; 8 of the last ten had won over three miles or more; previous Festival form is a plus as is a prep over hurdles. Notable trainer performances emerge from David Pipe, Jonjo O'Neill and Alan King.

Horses of interest thus include Minella Rocco (trained by Jonjo), Beware The Bear, Coo Star Sivola, Royal Vacation, and Vintage Clouds. I'll add to that list three whose hurdle marks suggest their chase marks are workable: Give Me A Copper, Flying Angel and Shantou Village.

There having not been a repeat winner of the race in living memory until Un Temps Pour Tout doubled up in 2016/17, Coo Star Sivola returns with credible claims of making it back-to-back back-to-back wins, if you see what I mean. Only three pounds higher than last term, it's safe to ignore all of his form since, though the absence since mid-December is probably sub-optimal.

The likes of Shantou Village and Royal Vacation are probably too exposed to be able to win a Festival handicap, where those who have hidden at least some of their light under a bushel tend to fare best, though the latter is tough and consistent and feels like one of the better 33/1 shots.

The third and fourth from last year, Vintage Clouds and Beware The Bear, re-oppose with Vintage on identical terms with the winner while the Bear is two pounds better off for nine lengths. At 25/1 and 20/1 respectively they ought to again offers runs for the pennies.

Higher up the market rank is Minella Rocco, whose Festival credentials are impeccable. He beat reigning Gold Cup champ, Native River, in the 2016 National Hunt Chase (the 'four miler') and then ran second in the Gold Cup of 2017. Lightly raced since, a perch of 152 is a full stone below his peak rating and this will surely have been the plan for a long time. Trip, track, and ground hold no fears and the under-rated Richie McLernon keeps the ride. I'm indebted to Matt Tombs - doubtless not for the last time this week - in relating that horses which prepped over hurdles are 4/19 in the last eight years, for a 21 point profit. Minella Rocco was last seen jogging round Exeter in a Pertemps Hurdle qualifier. He'll do for me.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll be keeping stakes small in the handicaps but I've talked myself into backing Minella Rocco each way at 8/1 (1/5 six places Skybet).

*

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

A belting renewal of the Champion Hurdle, and one where the dual Champion, Buveur d'Air, faces his strongest challenge yet from a brace of extremely talented mares in receipt of a seven pound weight allowance. Such is the prowess of the top two in the market - Buveur and Apple's Jade - let alone third in, Laurina, that it is extremely difficult to envisage anything else winning. At least, that's how the words which follow will present it.

Let's talk about the champ: Buveur d'Air has a record befitting of a dual Champion Hurdler, a second in a prep and third in the 2016 Supreme the sole blemishes in a 14 race timber-topping career. His Festival record is 311, and he handles any ground. True, he was unimpressive last season but he still managed to win when looking beaten - that's a sign of grit as well as class.

He's likely to be waited with, which will make for a fascinating clash with Apple's Jade whose run style is to go out front and try to stay out front. She's a versatile and top class mare, as ten Grade 1 wins between two and three miles attests. Her recent form has earned her a UK official rating of 166, six pounds below Buveur d'Air's. But... when you factor in the mares' allowance, she comes out a pound in front. Interesting.

There are a couple of potential flies on the Apple's Jade ointment. First, she's not the only one who likes to get on with things: Ben Pauling's Global Citizen is a confirmed front-runner, too, and Laurina can also race handily. In all probability Laurina will stalk Apple's but the Citizen might very well ask Jade to do a little more than she'd wish to in the first half of the race.

And then there's the JP McManus second string, Espoir d'Allen. Now I'm sure that Mr McManus is far too much of a sportsman to use his eight-from-nine lifetime beast as a 'spoiler' but, who knows?, maybe Mark Walsh takes it upon himself to lay up alongside Apple's Jade early doors. It probably won't happen, but it might. You know what I'm saying?

The other question mark about Apple's Jade is that she has been beaten in two of her three visits to Cheltenham and the Festival. First she was runner-up to Ivanovich Gorbatov in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle, a run which preceded her absolutely blitzing her field in the Aintree equivalent. In fact, she turned the tables on her Triumph vanquisher by the small matter of 41 lengths - and he was still good enough to be second in that rematch!

She then scrambled home from Vroum Vroum Mag in the 2017 Mares' Hurdle before being beaten not only by Benie Des Dieux, but also by Midnight Tour in the same race last year. The word was that she was in season at the time of the race last year, and that may be correct. But the balance of her Cheltenham form is simply not as good as elsewhere. I love her, like just about everyone else, but I couldn't back her at 2/1 to overcome the pace and track questions.

So what of Laurina? She's six from six since moving to Willie Mullins, a sequence which includes facile victory in last season's Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She 'could be anything' and hasn't been seriously tested yet; but therein lies the problem: she WILL be tested here and who knows what she will find? A beating of 145 and 130-odd rated horses last time was only what she ought to have done, and the race was set up for her by stablemate, Stormy Ireland; prior to that she won a match, and before that she won a ridiculously soft Grade 1 beating 120-something fillies. The second there has run five times since, and the third three times since, collectively without making the frame. I'm ready to be wowed but I'm not wagering that outcome at 7/2.

Is anything lurking in the long grass? Almost certainly not, but if you have a bookmaker paying four places or you want to bet without the top two then Sharjah has a progressive profile. His ultimately quite dominant win in a Galway handicap hurdle off 145 in a field of 20 is rock solid, and a literal interpretation of subsequent defeats of Faugheen and then Supasundae, both in Grade 1 races, puts him near the front pair. He'll be patiently ridden so any shenanigans on the front end should play in his favour and he's easily the pick of the each way prices to my eye, notwithstanding that this doesn't look a terrific each way race.

Champion Hurdle Selection

This has some fantastic racehorses lining up, but whether it works out a fantastic horse race I'm not convinced. If Apple's Jade brings her A game and is largely unpestered on the lead, she'll prove an elusive hare for the whippets, Buveur d'Air and Sharjah, to chase down. It obviously wouldn't be a surprise if Laurina featured, too, but she's the worst value in my book, so if she wins, I'll have to suck it up.

I think Buveur d'Air will probably win, and I hope he does because he's almost certainly not received the credit he deserves - and I say that as someone who has not historically given him enough credit! He's no price in a race where the bookies have it sewn up so, unless you can find an exotic route in - perhaps Sharjah place only - it's a race to watch and enjoy. Saying that, if his price touched 3/1 Buveur would have to be a bet.

Suggestion: Watch the market and back Buveur d'Air if any fools offer 3/1 about the dual Champ defending. Sharjah at 3/1 or better for a top 3 finish is also playable.

*

4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

Little more than a slow puncture after the helium-filled Montgolfier flight of the previous race, the Mares' Hurdle has singularly failed to capture my imagination and has more typically been accused of stealing a leading lady from the Champion or Stayers' Hurdle than providing a highlight in its own right. Still, it is now here and it is here to be won.

The man who does the winning is wily winning Willie, Mr Mullins of Closutton. Indeed he has held an almost monopolistic grasp on the Mares' mantle since its inception in 2008. Donald McCain actually won the inaugural running, Willie unrepresented, and Gordon Elliott won the 2017 renewal with Apple's Jade. The other nine have all gone Willie's way: a preposterous SIX of them went to Quevega - so good she now has a bar named after her at the course - and there has been one each for Glens Melody, Vroum Vroum Mag and Benie Des Dieux.

The last named bids to double up having, in true Quevega style, not been seen since winning at the Punchestown Festival a month after Cheltenham 2018. Her fitness has to be taken on trust, but if we can trust one thing it is that Willie Mullins knows how to get this won off a layoff. Benie may be no Quevega - yet - but she ground it out well last term, having been campaigned over fences up to that point. She's a shade of odds on - 10/11 - virtually across the board, testament perhaps to how little the bookies know and how much safety there is in numbers.

What I find interesting in a race that I generally don't find interesting is that this year Willie saddles not one, not two or three, but five of the fifteen runners. He couldn't have won that first running of the Mares' Hurdle because he didn't have a runner; since then he's saddled the following number of runners: 1112122222 - and now FIVE.

There are any number of ways to interpret this, including perfectly plausible ones like the owners want to run (not that WPM has ever been a man to kowtow to his owners). The conspiracy theory I like is that Benie Des Dieux is not Quevega and, if that is the case, it's 9/1 bar one. Game on!

Adding ballast to that contention is her UK rating of 151, within three pounds of which are four other mares. They look the ones on which to focus our snide each way assault, especially given Mullins himself trains three of the four (Alan King rounds out the quartet).

Stormy Ireland was the hare for Laurina to catch last time, and she's been consistent in defeat in recent starts. She looks a legitimate 145 or so, something some of these may not lay claim to being. She is likely to be afforded a largely uncontested lead, not that it is easy to lead here, still less in a big field.

Against her from the same squad is Good Thyne Tara, most of whose winning form is on quick ground but whose best form is arguably on softer (five length third to Shattered Love, half length second to Samcro in a pair of bumpers). She's been aggressively campaigned by Willie and has won a nice few quid for her owners, but it's hard to peg her optimal conditions. It's possible two and a half on soft might stretch her.

Limini, who can hardly have been said to have lost her way given she won a £78k heritage handicap on the level last autumn, has nevertheless not been winning under National Hunt rules. But she's run well in defeat all three times, against solid opposition. First there was a third place behind Apple's Jade. Respectfully behind Apple's Jade. Then there was a closer third to Good Thyne Tara; and most recently she was two lengths fourth to Presenting Percy in the Galmoy Hurdle. I can't decide whether she's slightly lost her form or her fight in recent spins but, either way, it doesn't seem to be quite all there at the moment over hurdles.

Britain won that 2008 opening version of the Mares' Hurdle but has not been atop the podium since. Probably the best of the somewhat piecemeal home challenge this time is Mia's Storm. She's won eight of her last ten completed starts, two chasing tumbles last season bringing about a reversion to the smaller obstacles. Alan King's nine-year-old has won both races this term, the second of which was in late November. That's a heck of a spell on the sidelines, somewhat mitigated by her excellent record fresh. She is a high 140's mare but comes with risk attached off the layoff.

Looking further down the ratings, all the while trying to retain a credible leap of improvement, is difficult. Both Jester Jet and Lady Buttons have been mixing hurdles and fences to good effect this season, but it is hard to see either of these likeable nine-year-olds finding the step forward required.

The one that vaguely interests me is Roksana. Only rated 142, to Benie's 151, she ostensibly has a mountain to climb. But she was highly progressive last term, elevating from 120 to 142, and she was entitled to need the run on her seasonal bow last month. There she was eleven lengths behind Buveur d'Air over a trip short of her best (she was second to Santini in a Grade 1 novice at Aintree over three miles against the boys last April), and I can see her improving seven pounds to around 150. That would put her bang in the mix.

She's a strong-travelling uncomplicated mare and has less miles on the clock than most of her rivals as a second season hurdler.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

A race which revolves around the defending champion, Benie Des Dieux. But her trainer, who has never saddled more than two in the race, lines up five this time, which could imply he is not that strong on the champ. Of course she can win, and she may well do, but at 10/11 it's a pass from me. Instead, I'll take Roksana each way at a double figure price.

I've seen worse 33/1 pokes than Good Thyne Tara, too: she's danced a lot of dances and stayed up late in most of them. She might just do so again.

Suggestion: Back Roksana each way at 10/1 general.

*

4.50 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed, 2m 4f)

Not my thing, though I do have an ante post bet in the race this year and a half decent ticket at that. Go me! Tower Bridge was never put into the race behind Duc Des Genievres in a beginners' chase last time, staying on when it was all over to be second of 17 (a few decent sorts behind). Rated 142 over hurdles, he's a pound lower over fences at this stage and, while hardly a bargain, he looks to have a decent chance in a wide open race.

Others whose chase mark is below their hurdle perch are The Russian Doyen (-3) and Solomn Grundy (-4). Both are interesting.

Last time out winners have a pretty good record, which brings in Lough Derg Spirit (been winning on flat tracks), the fully exposed Militarian, the experienced Walt, that lad The Russian Doyen again, good ground specialist Roaring Bull, favourite and (well beaten) third in a Grade 1 Riders Onthe Storm, and the exposed Huntsmans Son and Quamino.

Looking at Graded form as a hurdler would draw one to the claims of Tower Bridge and Riders Onthe Storm.

The big name handlers have a poor record in here, so it might be that Tom Taaffe's Riders Onthe Storm or Joseph O'Brien's Tower Bridge could give their trainers a timely fillip: Taaffe has had three Fez winners including Gold Cup scorer Kicking King and Finger Onthe Pulse in this race but not since 2010, Joseph is still looking for the first (though he was apparently training Ivanovich Gorbatov in all but name).

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

The top of the market tends to fare well in this race, and it will be no surprise if Riders Onthe Storm prevails. Having backed Tower Bridge at 20's, I'm happy though I still think there's a squeak of juice in his 9/1 quote. But maybe The Russian Doyen will give those chase specialists Tizzard and Cobden a day one win. He looks to have been expertly campaigned for his mark, with two and a half miles on soft ground expected to be a potent combination. At 25/1 in a place, he's too big.

Suggestion: Back The Russian Doyen at 25/1 each way (1/5 12345 Hills). Or if you want something more probable side with either 7/1 Rider Onthe Storm or 9/1 Tower Bridge.

*

5.30 National Hunt Chase (Grade 2, 3m 7 1/2f)

A long race and, these days, a classy one. A number of changes to the race conditions in the last twenty years have increased the quality and reduced the randomness such that it now often goes to the highest-rated runner in the field. Those with demonstrable experience, stamina and class are the ones upon which to focus. They tend to inhabit the top of the betting lists for obvious reasons.

The favourite, however, is one to field against in my view. OK Corral is a nine-year-old who has won his two chase starts. Two chase starts. That's inexperience right there. He looked a strong stayer over hurdles but he's only raced in four-runner fields over fences so the 18 who line up here will be a significantly different test. At 3/1, he's a nothankyou, even if he is the highest rated in the field.

Ballyward has also had just two chase starts and hails from a stable where, allegedly, schooling over fences is considered optional. Be that as it may, if it's not enough experience for the jolly it's not enough experience for the second in either.

Chef Des Obeaux is s-l-o-w, but this might be his kind of thing. He's high class slow and, though his jumping isn't brilliant, that has been when he's been out of his comfort zone at a mile shorter. With a faller concession he might be worth a small play.

The wise guy horse is Atlanta Ablaze. On ratings, she's exposed as not good enough; but she has the experience - ten chase starts, four wins. She drew me to her, but then I noticed all her best form is on a sound surface, which it is very unlikely to be. If I've got her ground predilection wrong she could go well but I don't think I have.

Discorama is another short one in the betting with whom I struggle. He's got class, but his stamina and experience are both open to question - or at least have yet to be shown. Jamie Codd has been snapped up to ride Le Breuil, a horse yet to race at three miles let alone four; but he does have plenty of experience, he has a touch of class and he will be ridden as cold as ice by the chef de lanterne rouge, Mr C. Even so he's not for me. Another wise guy play, I'd say. Good luck to the wise guys.

Impulsive Star has had six chase starts, including when not quite getting home in this race last year, eventually finishing 24 lengths fourth. He may again not quite have the stamina for the gig but equally should give the galloping dentist, Mr Samuel Waley-Cohen, a great spin round. Less interesting is Jerrysback, in spite of the money around for him. He's a son of Jeremy for crying out loud, who took four goes to get off the mark in point to points and who's never raced under rules beyond 2m5f. The sire's progeny are 0 from 33 beyond 2m6f.

Gordon Elliott saddles Gun Digger, a horse with at least a modicum of stamina, class and experience. Not much more than a modicum but in a race where I'm really struggling to find a contender that ticks those three boxes, this one comes closest.

But wait, what about Whisperinthebreeze? Six chase starts, a win and three further places, goes on most ground, seemed to stay well when second over 3m1f, and a mark of 146 puts him within hailing distance of the pick of these. Definitely one of the more appealing prospects.

National Hunt Chase Selection

There are reasons to swerve most of these one way or another, and it might be that one last trip to the bar is a better call than a final first day wager. That said, if we think the top of the market is there to be taken on, should we not tilt at a windmill or two? I feel we probably should.

Two at prices with fine riders are Gun Digger, ridden by Lisa O'Neill, and Whisperinthebreeze, steered by Fin Maguire. Both have hinted at the  trinity of requirements - class, stamina, experience - and in a race where most fall down (hopefully not literally) to some degree on one or more of the three, they're worth a go at decent double digits. Chef Des Obeaux wouldn't be the worst play at a price either.

Suggestion: Back Gun Digger (16/1 1/4 123 bet365, 14/1 1/5 1234 Skybet) and/or Whisperinthebreeze (20/1 1/4 123 bet365, 16/1 1/5 1234 Skybet)

*

Nobody said this would be easy. Though the Tuesday usually has a more straightforward look to it than the rest of the week, this Day One card feels fraught with danger and, therefore, opportunity. Go well, and remember to save some powder for the following three days!

Cheltenham Festival 2015: Day One Preview, Trends, Tips

2015 Cheltenham Festival Day 1 Preview, Tips

2015 Cheltenham Festival Day 1 Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2015: Day One Preview, Trends, Tips

The biggest event in National Hunt racing is finally upon us once more, and the collective noisy exhalation as the tapes rise for race one - the Supreme Novices' Hurdle - will be enough to extinguish many an inferno, such is the joy and anticipation engendered by these four days in the Cotswolds.

Seven races make up the Tuesday card, four of them Grade 1 contests, and Willie Mullins has robust claims in all of that top notch quartet.

Before we start, don't forget there's a tipping competition here on geegeez with some excellent prizes this week. Here's how you can get involved.

And there is a new bet which might be of interest to some (it is to me!). The Irish Tote are offering a Pick 4 on the first four races (Supreme, Arkle, Festival Handicap Chase, Champion Hurdle). Find out more here.

1.30 Supreme Novices' Hurdle Preview

I previewed the Supreme Novices' on 17th February, nominating a couple at huge prices in Seedling and Silver Concorde, both of which were 33/1 at the time. I also threw in 6/1 Nichols Canyon to win any race at the Festival, with his final target being unknown at that time. Two of those are now shorter propositions to hit their respective targets, though Silver Concorde has not been declared.

Douvan remains the most likely winner, his easy victories to date in decent times supplementing a home reputation where trainer Willie Mullins has called him "as nice a horse as we’ve ever had going to Cheltenham". Given that Mullins has 33 Cheltenham Festival winners already in the locker, that's some statement.

Now, of course, the run up to the Festival is renowned for enough hot air to fuel a transatlantic balloon race; but still, such a statement from the normally measured Closutton trainer needs respecting.

The plot is thickened by similarly bullish noises emerging from the Seven Barrows camp of second favourite, L'Ami Serge. His trainer, Nicky Henderson, has been quoted thus: "I am not saying L’Ami Serge is the best I‘ve ever had but he’s looked good in all his starts. He’s been very professional and has everything you look for and better ground will suit him.”

Sound bites can cloud judgement, and it is probable that both will have to record a career high to claim the opening race prize. But that's a comment which applies to the rest of the field too, and the top two in the market have to make smaller leaps than most.

In a race perennially typified by unexposed 'could be anything' types, and with bookmakers offering generous concessions to those backing losers - or losers behind Douvan - it's worth shopping around and taking a punt on whatever you like.

Likely Pace Angles:

A couple that like to get on with it, in Some Plan and one of Willie's four, Tell Us More. Douvan and Sizing John might also race up with the pace, and it looks likely to be a very stern test from the tape rise.

Suggested day of race play: Back Douvan for £25 with Hills and anything else for £50 with Paddy. If Douvan wins, you'll collect at Hills and get your money back (as a free bet) on the Paddy loser. If Douvan doesn't win, you have a chance with Paddy and get your money back (as a free bet) with Hills.

Tipped already: 

0.5 pt win Silver Concorde 33/1 Non-Runner

0.5 pt win Seedling 33/1

Best Supreme Novices' Hurdle offers:

a. William.Hill (all customers)

Money back as a free bet if your win or each way bet doesn't come in. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.

b. Padd.yPower (all customers)

Money back on all losing bets if Douvan wins the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Max stake £50. Click here to get this offer.

c. Sky.bet (all customers)

Money back as a free bet if your horse loses in the Supreme. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.

d. Coral (all customers)

Place a £20 win or £10 each way bet on the Supreme, and get a free £5 bet for every winner Ruby Walsh rides on Tuesday. Click here to get this offer.

**

2.05 Arkle Challenge Trophy Preview

Another of the early preview races, the Arkle was considered on 26th January here, and Vibrato Valtat advised each way. He was nominated at 20/1, and is now around 5/1, so we have the value at the very least.

That value has long evaporated, and with Un De Sceaux hovering around the 4/6 mark, he's hardly an attractive proposition either, especially given that he bids to become just the second front runner in the last 34 Arkles to prevail.

Still, both have solid chances, particularly UDS, as any ratings agency will tell you. But Mullins' second hotpot of Day One has yet to race at Cheltenham, and this is a track where plenty of tall reputations are unhinged. He is the most likely winner - by some considerable margin - but he can't be a bet at the price, unless you have a lot of sixes that you're prepared to lose in pursuit of fours...

Each way a quarter the odds, or betting without UDS, are both interesting markets. And I'm tempted to top up my ante-post play on Vibrato Valtat with a day of race interest in Court Minstrel. He's unexposed, and can be forgiven his most recent defeat on account of the soft ground. Back on quicker turf, and with Cheltenham form in the book, 33/1 is attractive.

For pennies, Gods Own could come back to a bit of his early season form on spring ground, but it's a fair old leap of faith.

And the final option is to make an each way bet with Paddy, perhaps on one of those mentioned above, who offer money back as a free bet on the win part if Un De Sceaux scores, up to £50.

Likely Pace Angles:

Un De Sceaux will go from the tape according to all known thinking. But there are others that like to lead too: Dunraven Storm, God's Own, and Sail By The Sea have all been leading in their chase careers to date.

Suggested day of race play: Back your fancy (perhaps Court Minstrel) each way up to £50 with Paddy. If Un De Sceaux wins, you'll get your money back (as a free bet) on the Paddy loser. If Un De Sceaux doesn't win, you have a chance of the win as well as the place with Paddy.

Tipped already: 

1pt e/w Vibrato Valtat 20/1 (1/4 1-2-3)

Best Arkle Trophy offers:

a. Padd.yPower (all customers)

Money back on all losing bets if Un De Sceaux wins the Arkle. Max stake £50. Click here to get this offer.

b. B.oylesports (all customers, MOBILE only)

Money back as a free bet on bets placed via mobile if Un De Sceaux fails to win the Arkle. Max stake £25. Click here to get this offer.

**

2.40 Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase

The first handicap of the week, and I'm not ashamed to admit I find Cheltenham Festival handicaps a little beyond me. That said, with ten of the last fourteen runnings of this race going to a horse priced 10/1 or shorter, shy punters such as myself have a bit of a chance.

12/17 winners since 1997 finished 1-2-3 last time out, and last time out winners specifically have a very good record (seven winners from 60 runners, and a profit of 23 points at SP).

Horses aged seven to ten have won all bar one of those seventeen renewals (94%), from 77% of the runners.

Only one of the 75 horses rated above 145 has won.

Ned Stark is a leading fancy, and he ticks the boxes too.  A novice - novices have a fine record - Alan King's seven year old has run just four times over fences, winning three of those events, including a Grade 2 over this trip last time. Most of his form is on soft ground, but he has won on good to soft.

Your first 30 days for just £1

He's open to further improvement, and looks a solid play, especially given King's record in the race: two wins and a third (plus Bensalem, who was travelling like the winner when falling two out) since 2004.

Jonjo O'Neill also has a great race record, with three wins from just eight runners since 2009. Even with that impressive CV, it's hard to get too excited about either Dursey Sound or Lost Legend, at 40/1 and 50/1 respectively. The former is four pounds lower than when second on fast ground in a Listed handicap chase at Market Rasen last September, form which is mildly compelling but doesn't look good enough; the latter has run as though this trip is beyond his stamina reach.

JP McManus loves a winner at Cheltenham - don't we all?! - and he's got more than just Dursey Sound in here. Indeed, the main plunge of the week has been on his Pendra, trained by Charlie Longsdon. Third in the novices' handicap chase that closes the Tuesday card last year, he's been held back for this since a fair - but no better than that - fourth of eight at Newbury in late November. That's a long break and, although the wind op has been levied since, he's too short to bet despite potential to step forward after just six chase starts.

More speculatively, The Druids Nephew stays well and has decent track form, and Barrakilla could improve for the step up in trip. But I'm happy to punt Ned Stark for small money.

Likely Pace Angles:

Annacotty, Azure Fly, Black Thunder, and What A Warrior all go from the front, but this has the look of a bit of a strung out field in the early part of the race. Those who race close to the pace could be favoured, and that brings in the likes of Ned Stark, Smart Freddy, The Druid's Nephew, Barakilla and Indian Castle amongst others.

Tips: Ned Stark 8/1 general

Best Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase offers:

Look for a bookmaker paying enhanced place odds. Winner Sports, bet365, BetVictor and Betfair Sportsbook are all paying five places at time of writing.

**

3.15 Champion Hurdle

The Champion Hurdle is the feature on Day One, and the pinnacle for a speed hurdler. In what has the look of a transitional season, Faugheen has seized the market initiative with a bulldozing dominance that has seen him win all eight of his careers starts without coming off the bridle.

That octet includes the Grade 1 Neptune Novices' Hurdle at last year's Cheltenham Festival, and that race has been a solid portent to future Champion Hurdlers, with the likes of Istabraq and Hardy Eustace going on to win multiple Blue Ribands.

Faugheen has a bit to find on the book, of that there is little doubt, but it is the manner of his wins as much as the horses he's beaten that really stands out. His wins include a trio of Grade 1 scores, where the in running comments concluded with the following phrases: "drew clear before last, ridden out", "very easily", and "impressive".

I am rarely taken with the manner of a horse's victories - just as well, because I wouldn't consider myself a judge of such things - but I did have the biggest bet in my portfolio for Cheltenham this year on Faugheen at 8/1 after that Punchestown demolition job.

He has been off the track a long time now - since Boxing Day - and he has to take on tougher opponents, but he clearly has more in the tank. If any bookie is brave enough to offer north of 6/4, he's a bet. At the moment, he's probably a bit skinny, though comfortably the most likely winner to my eye.

The New One is the horse I cannot have. If he wins, fair enough, I got it wrong. But I just don't think his form amounts to all that much. If Faugheen has been beating up inferiors, he's at least done it with zest. Whereas TNO's struggle to get by 149-rated Bertimont (who?!) gives him a stone and more to find with Faugheen on a line through Purple Bay.

Now I'm not for a minute suggesting that inference of collateral form is correct, but it does rather detract from the claims of the second favourite. Prior to that he beat Vaniteux less than five lengths in a race working out appallingly; and before that he won a Class 2 beating Zamdy Man, no better than a Grade 3 horse. Keep going back and he beat Hint Of Mint, 0 from 4 since, by just over two lengths.

Despite his ostensibly unlucky run in last season's Champion Hurdle, I simply cannot see how he is the 3/1 second favourite. That Champion Hurdle run showed that he probably wants more of a trip, as when winning the Neptune two years ago. He just doesn't have the pace of Faugheen, nor the class. At least, I don't think he does.

Jezki is hard to fathom. He's the reigning champ, and he's not had his conditions since. Fair enough, but he was the beneficiary of a brilliant Geraghty ride last year, and I don't believe that McCoy has the finesse to pull off some of the stunts that BJG and Ruby do. McCoy is more driven, and better at galvanizing horses, but Ruby and Barry are better horsemen and, dare I say it, better race riders. In my opinion.

Still, he looks highly likely for the frame, and 5/1 each way will show a positive return for a podium finish, with a bit of a chance of claiming top honours. If there is any value in this market - and I don't think there probably is - then he'd be it.

Hurricane Fly will not be quick enough. He's obviously an incredible horse: a horse of a generation. But aged eleven, against a tuned-to-the-moment Jezki and the machine called Faugheen, he's not going to win. Like Jezki, he might make the frame, but he's only the right price at 8/1 and not a value one.

I feel that Arctic Fire has been flattered by his proximity to the Fly and Jezki this season, and I don't expect him to hit the board, and the rest surely don't count. This really ought to be all about Fo-heeeeen!

Likely Pace Angles:

Faugheen can make his own running if necessary, though Kitten Rock does have the look of a spoiler with the aim to set things up for Jezki. Of course, Faugheen doesn't need to lead so may sit tight behind any trailblazing tactics.

Tips: Faugheen if 6/4 or bigger, otherwise watch a great race with a valueless (to my eye) market

Suggested day of race play: Look out for bookies trying to 'get' Faugheen, and take any 6/4+. Take your pick in the 'without' market especially if, like me, you're against The New One.

Best Champion Hurdle offers:

a. 88.8sport (NEW customers)

Get 4/1 Faugheen to win the Champion Hurdle (paid in cash, NOT free bets). Max stake £10. Click here to get this offer.

b. Winner.Sports (NEW customers)

Get 4/1 Faugheen to win the Champion Hurdle (settled at SP in cash, enhanced odds paid in free bets). Min/Max stake £10. Click here to get this offer.

**

4.00 Mares' Hurdle

No Quevega this year but, even without the winner of six of the seven Mares' Hurdles, her trainer Willie Mullins has a ready-made replacement in the shape of Annie Power, who will win this barring accidents.

Her best trip is two and a half miles, she is rated half a stone and more superior to her field, and she's only been beaten once - when a close second in the World Hurdle last term. Whether she failed to stay or not is a moot point. What is clear is that she loves this trip and this ground, and she has proven she acts on the track.

She might add 50% to any other wager you care to strike during the Festival or beyond, or for the more loaded guns, she might be playable to win plenty, as she still retains a soupçon (or perhaps a scintilla) of value in my view.

Alternatively, we can bet each way, without the favourite, or have a cut at an exacta. Glens Melody is credible but terribly short at 7/2 despite a facile Listed race win at Warwick last time. She was flattered by her three-quarter length proximity to Quevega last year, that one being the recipient of a rare moderate ride from Ruby and having to work very hard to make up her ground.

One that I like, despite a 106 day absence, is the 2013 Aintree 4yo Hurdle winner, L'Unique. She was third in the race last year, having been given a fairly tender ride I felt. She is held up in her races and, with a few mares likely to push on from the get go, the race could fall apart nicely for her. 8/1 without Annie Power looks a fair bet.

Polly Peachum, who is above L'Unique in the market but below Glens Melody, has been off for as long as the suggested 'without' wager, having pulled up in the same race. She probably wants a bit further than this, and could be outpaced. Similar comments apply to Carole's Spirit, who might want cut underfoot too.

Likely Pace Angles:

A big field of 16 declared, and a few that habitually run from the front, including Annie Power. She's joined in the early pace group by Bitofapuzzle, Carole's Spirit (who I can see trying to make this as stern a stamina test as she can, given she wants three miles), and Sureness.

Tips: Annie Power looks very likely to win. And L'Unique may offer each way or 'without' value.

Suggested day of race play: L'Unique each way without Annie Power, at 7/1 Skybet (1/4 1-2-3)

Mares' Hurdle offers:

 

**

4.40 National Hunt Chase

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

That said, and despite the precarious race conditions, it has been a punter-friendly race since the class ceiling was relaxed. Changes in 2002, 2006 and 2010 have brought about four winners at 5/1 or shorter in that time.

That, however, needs to be balanced by the presence of a 40/1 winner, two more at 33/1 and a further victor returning 25/1 in the same period. The coin spins a final time to reflect the fact that the last four winners were priced 8/1 or shorter, and the last seven were 14/1 or shorter.

Grade 1 form seems to be more material now the race is open to classier animals, and interestingly young horses (specifically five- and six-year-olds) are one from 67 since 1989 (thanks to Paul Jones for that stat). That counts against Very Wood, Cogry and Vivaldi Collonges.

I have to be honest and say this race doesn't interest me a great deal, even now it's a classier affair. Very Wood was a bet I made for the RSA Chase non-runner money back, and I'm disappointed to see him turn up here. He does stay, however, and he won a Grade 1 last year, so if he can jump round he's an obvious chance, albeit one factored entirely into his price of 7/2. He absolutely needs quick ground and his form on deeper can be totally forgotten.

Alan King's Sego Success is next in the betting. Winner of his last two, the latter a Listed novices' chase on soft ground, he'll have the considerable services of Sam Waley-Cohen, the Gold Cup-winning amateur. But there are reservations for me. First, he's been winning on flat tracks, second he's been winning on soft ground, and third he's by Beneficial who doesn't get progeny that stay four miles. (In fact, he's had just two winners beyond 3m3f, from 106 runners, and one of those was at 3m4f - 6/4 chance Salsify in the 2012 Stratford Champion Foxhinters'. The other was Beneficial's very first runner at a marathon distance, GVA Ireland, in the 2006 Midlands Grand National).

Next in at around 8/1 are The Job Is Right and Cause Of Causes. Both are Irish-trained, and both have very good amateur jockeys aboard. The Job Is Right ran second to Very Wood in a fair Galway novices' chase on good to yielding, but that was over 2m6f. Despite winning on softer at three miles, this is an entirely different test. He did have decent quick ground form over hurdles, but it's not in the same league as Very Wood.

Cause Of Causes is very experienced, with 26 career starts, ten over fences. He was a close second to Spring Heeled in the Kim Muir last year at the Festival, which proves a) he goes on quick ground, b) he has some class, and c) he goes well for an amateur. As such, he has to be on the shortlist for this race.

The top official rated in the race is Sandra Hughes' Thunder And Roses. Third behind Very Wood in a Grade 2 last time, the problem with this potentially emotional winner (trained by the daughter of the late Dessie Hughes) is that all his best form is on softer.

Willie Mullins runs the King's Theatre gelding, Perfect Gentleman, and his son rides. But he doesn't look likely to stay this far, and is a bit of a sticky jumper in any case.

No, by a process of elimination, this does look good for the jolly. And the each way play, if such a thing excites you, looks very likely to be Cause Of Causes, who will probably be backed as a result of his form last year at the Festival.

Likely Pace Angles:

Royal Palladium and I Need Gold should force the pace. Perfect Candidate, The Job Is Right and Vivaldi Collonges could be in the next group, and possibly Perfect Gentleman if not held up to get the trip. Very Wood will likely not be too far from the pace as well. Cause Of Causes looks likely to play his hand fairly late in what might be an attritional affair, on the second circuit at least.

Tips: 

1pt win Very Wood

1/2 pt e/w Cause Of Causes

National Hunt Chase offers:

None so far, but look out for a bookie paying four places if you're betting each way.

**

5.15 Novices' Handicap Chase

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

As such, all horses can be said to have publicly demonstrated very similar levels of ability to date. The winner, though, will be the one best suited to conditions and, tellingly, who has kept the most talent under wraps.

It is therefore no surprise that eight of the ten winners of this race failed to score on either of their first two chase starts; that eight of the ten winners were first or second last time out; and that five of the last six winners were making their handicap chase débuts. Such is the nature of this race.

Those with attractive profiles in that context include Generous Ransom, Thomas Crapper, Horizontal Speed and Keltus.

Nick Gifford's Generous Ransom has won over the distance and at the course, and his best form is on the soft side of good. He failed to win on his first two chase starts, and was perhaps unsuited by the flat track test at Kempton betwixt soft ground victories at stiffer Sandown and Cheltenham. He looks an obvious player.

Mouse Morris runs the consistent Dromnea, winner of two of his six chases and third in the other four, the most recent of which was a Grade 2. He looks as though his best trip is two and a half miles, but he also looks like he needs soft or heavy ground to perform optimally.

This is a race the Irish have won just once, and I'd be thinking they'll still be looking for strike two when dusk shades the sky tomorrow evening.

Horizontal Speed looks a contender. Placed efforts behind Golden Hoof, Southfield Theatre and Saphir Du Rheu in his first trio of chases read well enough - though he was beaten miles in the middle run - and he got off the mark comfortably when slamming Red Devil Boys over this trip and on this ground in early January.

A 59 day absence is not insurmountable, and trainer Philip Hobbs has a fine recent Festival record, scoring with three handicap chasers since 2010. When you consider that Horizontal Speed was first or second in nine of ten bumpers and hurdle races earlier in his career, he becomes quite attractive.

Thomas Crapper has been well supported, and both he and Keltus have chances, sneaking in as they do at the bottom of the weights. Robin Dickin's lad is yet to win in five chase starts to date, but second place runs behind Vibrato Valtat, Three Kingdoms and Irish Saint, and a close third to Court Minstrel, read extremely well in the handicap context. This was his trip over hurdles, and he was second in the Martin Pipe handicap last season. Definite chance.

Keltus runs for Paul Nicholls, and has a similar profile. Fourth in the Fred Winter last term, he's been looked after in three novice chases this season, most notably when close up behind Court Minstrel. Although his trainer's record in Festival chases in recent seasons is lamentable, that's likely down to happenstance more than an ebbing of ability in the Ditcheat handler. Thus, Keltus merits serious consideration.

Likely Pace Angles:

Stellar Notion could get a soft lead even in a field this big. That said, Keltus, Killala Quay, Golden Hoof and Horizontal Speed are all capable of taking a turn on the front. Interestingly, perhaps, Thomas Crapper has led twice and been held up twice in his last four runs. On his winning runs he has assumed a variety of positions, and that pace agnosticism should help him.

Tips: 

1pt Thomas Crapper at 8/1 Coral

1/2 pt Horizontal Speed at 16/1 Skybet, Boyle, Betfair Sportsbook

1/2 pt Keltus at 12/1 Ladbrokes

Novices' Handicap Chase offers:

Look for a bookmaker paying five places.

BetVictor and Betfair Sportsbook are already five places, and there are sure to be more following suit.