Tag Archive for: Supreme Novices Hurdle preview

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 >

 

Sign up to receive David's Cheltenham Festival notebook horses 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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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.

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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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Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2022: Day One Preview, Tips

We're back! After the weirdness of a behind closed doors Cheltenham Festival last year - did that really happen? - and the hand-wringing and recrimination that followed the 'super spreader' 2020 variant, we are finally back live on Cleeve Hill for the 2022 renewal of the greatest meeting in the calendar. Whoop, whoop, and woohoo!

The opening day always majors on speed, quality, and drama from the get-go, with a double-barrelled Grade 1 two-mile novice volley to kick us off. It's the hurdlers first, in the...

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

The traditional pipe opener restored to its 1.30 tapes up slot and, after much hokey cokeying amongst the mega stable entries we have our list of runners and riders fixed. It's a yes for Dysart Dynamo, Constitution Hill and Jonbon but a 'see you tomorrow' for Sir Gerhard.

A smallish field of nine sets the tone for a week where the non-handicaps are expected to be shallow affairs runners wise in the main, with the dominance of those aforementioned superyard chickens perhaps coming home to roost a little. Anyway, macro questions like that don't belong before an obstacle has been cleared so let's get back to business.

In spite of the small field the Supreme remains a competitive race with five horses at single figure prices. They are headed by inmates of the unofficial Prestbury Cup team captains Nicky Henderson and Willie Mullins and, more pertinently, their A and B players, Constitution Hill and Jonbon (NJH) and Dysart Dynamo and Kilcruit (WPM). Mullins also lobs a third dart in Bring On The Night.

Let's start on home shores and Constitution Hill has looked all class in a pair of facile Sandown scores to date, trouncing a field of maidens before treating his Grade 1 Tolworth rivals with similar disdain. The merit of that heavy ground G1 form is unclear with the second and third getting thumped next time, but the winner could have done no more. He is clearly a very classy recruit whose maiden win offers hope that the quicker Cheltenham turf won't be a problem. We have to yet to see what he'll find off the bridle, though, and it is hard to imagine any horse taking this 'on the snaff'.

Vying for favouritism is the first of the Closutton triumvirate, Dysart Dynamo, a buzzy front-running type who is quick, very quick. Winner of all four starts to date - two bumpers, a maiden hurdle and a Grade 2 hurdle - it is worth noting that while never seeing a rival in the two hurdle starts he took a lead in both of his bumpers before strolling home unchallenged. It may be further worth noting that the first of those was a soft ground near two-and-a-half miler, so stamina is assured. It's hard to know exactly what he beat in the G2 but second-placed Gringo d'Aubrelle had previously been a ten length third to Stage Star in the G1 Challow over further.

For all of the obvious upside of those 'opening batsmen', their second picks have arguably more substance in the book. Jonbon, representing Seven Barrows, is also unbeaten in four, a bumper and three hurdle races, most recently a couple of Grade 2 contests. The first of those was a steadily run small field heat, but the second, the Rossington Main at Haydock, was well contested and Jonbon came home in a good time. He's not been nearly as flashy as those shorter in the market but he's highly effective and has been well on top each time in spite of narrower margins of victory. Jonbon cost £570,000 after winning his point to point, a price based as much on being a full brother to Douvan as to the manner of his win between the flags. Nothing looks value at that sort of a price, but owner J P McManus has met his objective of getting to the Festival with a chance.

Second pick for Willie is Kilcruit, beaten by the race tactics in last year's Champion Bumper and subsequently reversing form with his conqueror, Sir Gerhard, in the Punchestown equivalent. Hurdling has not been a straightforward discipline for Kilcruit heretofore however: it took him three attempts to get off the mark, something he only achieved in middling maiden company last time out. If that's the not great news, the positives are that he won that twenty-runner race by 21 lengths, and that he did it in a manner which impressed the time and sectional watchers. He has looked a little ungainly on occasion, even appearing to lose his action, but that may just be his way of going.

The Mullins third string is an unbeaten-in-one 'could be anything' type called Bring On The Night. A progressive three-year-old when trained in France by Andre Fabre, it was nigh on two years thereafter that he made his timber debut at Naas. Impressive he was, too, coming right away from a large field of maidens in spite of bungling the final flight. It should be remembered that a maiden in late February will be easier to win than one in late November, most of the runners already multiple non-winners by then. Willie was quite bullish about his ability in recent stable tour chat but I thought he might have gone Ballymore rather than here.

And no Festival party is complete - 2021 excepted - without a Gordon Elliott-trained invitee. His sole Supreme entry is Mighty Potter, whose Grade 1 form stands up against what his rivals have achieved thus far. Outpaced in a tactical Royal Bond in late November, he showed his true self a month later in the Future Champions Novice (G1). A more truly run race such as this looks right up his street and he is a definite place player at least in a tough betting puzzle.

That leaves a trio of British-trained hopes, the word 'hope' used loosely. Shallwehaveonemore was beaten 26 lengths by Constitution Hill in the Tolworth but has improved a fair bit since. His best form is on decent ground so that's a plus, and he may have been a little outpaced at Kempton last time when second in Grade 2 company. He could run quite well without challenging the podium places.

Jpr One was just about last in the Betfair Hurdle last time and that doesn't bode well for his prospects here; while Silent Revolution is inexperienced but beat a well regarded horse last time at Newbury.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Likely to be at least truly run, and potentially a little fast early; the winner will need to travel and jump at top speed as well as possess sufficient stamina to see it out after the last.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This is tricky. We've got to balance the style and potential of Dysart Dynamo and Constitution Hill against the substance of Jonbon, Kilcruit and Mighty Potter. Given the prices, where style is in the realms of win only wagering, and substance comes with each way potential, I'll let the pin up boys beat me if they can. The more I look at the Supreme, the more I feel like Mighty Potter should get a lovely lead into the business end and will get the end-to-end gallop that suits him best. He's the biggest price of the fancied quintet and that seems a little unfair.

Suggestion: Back Mighty Potter each way at 8/1 or better, ideally with a bookie offering extra places or money back if beaten.

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2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The first chase of the week is the Arkle Challenge Trophy, a two mile event for novices. If it perhaps lacks a little star quality this year - there can't be a Shishkin/Altior/Douvan every time - it remains competitive from a betting perspective.

Edwardstone tops the pile on just about every ratings compiler's list, and he heads the betting, too. Brought down on fencing debut, that inauspicious introduction has long been forgotten as he has subsequently strung four straight chase wins together, three of them in Graded company, one a Grade 1. He jumped very well at Warwick in the Grade 2 Kingmaker last time but, prior to that, had put in the odd clumsy one. With a versatile run style and the best form in the book, he has a very obvious chance to add to trainer Alan King's two previous Arkle scores.

The best fancied of the Irish party is the Willie Mullins-trained Blue Lord, whose hitherto unbeaten trio over fences culminated with Grade 1 success in the Irish Arkle at the Dublin Racing Festival. His hurdles form was better than respectable - he'd have been comfortably closest to Appreciate It in last year's Supreme but for tumbling at the last - and he's looked assured in his leaping thus far. He was being closed down by Riviere d'Etel, who had led to the last fence before blundering, but was conceding nine pounds to that five-year-old mare. Saint Sam, who had led until the second last, was a further four lengths back while the quietly fancied Haut En Couleurs was an early faller.

Trying to unpick that form line with a view to the Arkle is difficult: Blue Lord can probably be expected to come on for the run and has proven himself at Cheltenham albeit when unshipping - he is also the top-rated hurdler (148) from the Irish Arkle cohort; Riviere d'Etel was only a 134-rated hurdler but is 150 over fences already and has looked good this season, but her age and weight pull with Blue Lord will be reduced from nine pounds to seven; Saint Sam is likewise a far better fencer than hurdler (152 versus 143), while Haut En Couleurs was the best of the five-year-olds over timber and has most scope to progress chasing after just two starts and one completion.

In his sole chase effort before the last day fall, Haut En Couleurs had easily accounted for Gentleman De Mee and Mt Leinster, the former hacking up twice since, most recently in Grade 3 company at odds of 1/5. It is worth noting that five-year-olds have failed to win since their allowance was removed, though some of the fancied ones (Allmankind, Saint Calvados) have been given, erm, interesting rides from the front. Nevertheless, that's a reservation for now, even though the pre-eminence of the same age group in the Champion Hurdle market says a fair bit about the older generations in the two-mile division currently.

The lightly-raced mare Magic Daze has been fairly well supported but I'm struggling to see her case. She was second in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle last season before finishing only fourth in a Listed mares' event at Punchestown. Over fences, she's one from three so far and she lacks obvious upside to my eye. Perhaps more interesting of the longer-priced Irish runners is Coeur Sublime, who ran in open Grade 1 hurdles last year and was rated 152 in that sphere. True, Coeur was beaten a number of lengths by Riviere d'Etel when that one was a length and a half behind Ferny Hollow in the G1 two mile novice chase at the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, and he's done no more since than ease home in a nothing beginners' chase at Gowran Park; but he brings 'back class' and fencing upside to the Arkle party.

War Lord is also worth a mention. Trained by Colin Tizzard, his sole defeat in four progressive chase starts was when well seen off, but still best of the rest, behind Edwardstone in the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown in December. It's fair to say that the Tizzard stable was in poor form at that moment and is firing much better now; if that was a factor in War Lord's defeat, he might be over-priced.

Gavin Cromwell runs Gabynako, whose last race was a shocker. That was on heavy and he quite possibly didn't handle it. On his previous start, in the Grade 1 Drinmore, he was narrowly beaten having made a mistake at the last; and prior to that he beat Fury Road in a beginners' chase. All that form is over further so, if his jumping can hold up in what looks set to be a fast early tempo, he'll stay well and could sneak into the frame.

Brave Seasca, who has progressed through soft ground handicaps but was no match for Edwardstone last time, is probably a little out of his depth.

Arkle Pace Projection

Saint Sam and Magic Daze are the most likely leaders, but Blue Lord and Riviere d'Etel have led or pressed the pace in at least two of their most recent four starts as well. Should be an honest, perhaps, fast gallop.

Arkle Chase Selection

The furlong shorter trip compared with the Irish Arkle might be a benefit to Blue Lord, whose credentials look most apparent of the Irish runners even though the eye was naturally drawn to Riviere d'Etel's unlucky runner up effort there. Haut En Couleurs has plenty of untapped potential and could usurp the finishers from that race if standing up.

Of the home team, Edwardstone's case dwarfs his compatriots, though it is possible that War Lord may significantly reduce the margin by which he was beaten in December. Coeur Sublime is another dark horse at a price, and Gabynako a third, in a trappy and open-looking Arkle.

Suggestion: Back Haut En Couleurs to win at 8/1, ideally with a bookie offering faller insurance. 20/1 Gabynako may outrun his price and could be a little each way value with four places.

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

The first handicap of the week and one that normally goes to a runner close to the head of the market. A few trends may help the route to a shortlist.

Josh Wright from racingtoprofit.co.uk tells us that

14/14 had 1+ run at track previously (had not: 0/44,7p)
14/14 had been ridden by today’s jockey at least once (had not: 0/42, 3p)
14/14 0-4 chase runs at the track (5+ : 0/53, 6p)
14/14 top 6 on last start (7th>: 0/99, 14p)
13/14 had 10 or fewer runs in handicaps (11+ : 1/120, 12p)
13/14 were 5th or lower in the weights (Top 4: 1/67, 13p)
13/14 had run at Grade 1 or 2 level in career (had not: 1/79, 9p)
13/14 had 14 or fewer chase runs (15+ : 1/83, 9p)
13/14 ran left handed last start (RH: 1/107, 14p)
12/14 had 1 or 2 runs this calendar year (did not: 2/105, 17p)
12/14 had 0-1 handicap chase wins (2+ : 2/116, 13p)

That leaves eight - Does He Know, Floueur, Tea Clipper, Fantastikas, Grumpy Charley, Kiltealy Briggs, Full Back and Oscar Elite.

And Matt Tombs in his excellent matchbook content added that five of the 14 runners to start with a chase rating 7lb+ lower than their hurdle mark managed to win in the last 13 renewals. Interesting, almost like they found improvement for the atmosphere of the Festival...

Putting all of that together gives me a single horse, Oscar Elite. I'd backed him prior to the kingmaker race for the Festival handicap chases, the Timeform Novices' Handicap Chase at Cheltenham's Trials Day, and am consequently on very good terms with myself. The case is thus: he was second to Vanillier in last year's Grade 1 Albert Bartlett and then third behind Ahoy Senor in the staying Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree. A switch to fences has failed to produce a win in four starts but there was the promise of more in three of them, all at Cheltenham. This will have been the plan from the outset.

Of the others on the shortlist, Does He Know's trainer, Kim Bailey, has had a winner (in 1999) and two places from four Ultima starters, including last year's second, Happygolucky. And Tea Clipper is interesting with first time cheekpieces and first run after a wind operation. He was no match for Bravemansgame in the Grade 1 Kauto Star (Feltham as was) but this will be more his cup of, well, you know. Full Back won at the New Year's Day fixture and was probably looked after a little at Taunton in his only race since.

The last Irish winner of the Ultima was Dun Doire in 2006 but they've had very few runners since. In fact, their runner form string from 2007 is 02222121233422. This year, there will be as many as seven Irish-trained runners, so they have a commensurately greater chance of winning!

Ultima Pace Projection

It will be quick and there will be some trouble in transit for a few. Hopefully Frodon gets them spaced out behind and all have their chance.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

I backed Oscar Elite at 28/1 in January and I think he's still value at 20/1 now, especially with loads of extra places. Of the rest, Does He Know and Tea Clipper are possibles.

Suggestion: Back Oscar Elite each way at around 20/1 with as many extra places as you can find.

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

The main event on Day One is the Champion Hurdle, a two mile Grade 1 where the reigning champion, Honeysuckle, will bid to defend her crown. Not only is Kenny Alexander's mare the reigning champ but she is also unbeaten in 14 career starts under Rules and, before that, a single point to point.

I previewed the Champion Hurdle in mid-January and nothing has materially changed since then. Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle easily enough; Appreciate It has still not been sighted; and the five-year-olds are still loitering on the periphery with intent.

Of that last named cohort, maybe Teahupoo has advanced his claims since the turn of the year. He's still yet to race in Grade 1 company, but has been dominant in winning a brace of Grade 3's either side of a Grade 2 score. He's looked like there is plenty more to come but his potential is more than factored into quotes of 8/1 especially when noting his lack of form on a sound surface (for which, granted, he could improve, though I don't expect him to).

I also didn't mention Tommy's Oscar in that earlier preview, Mrs Ann Hamilton's flag bearer well worthy of the name check having waltzed away with the Haydock Champion Hurdle trial shortly after publication. He's been aggressively ascendant, rising from a rating of 139 at season start to his current 156; but that still leaves him with a stone and more to find when Honeysuckle's mares' allowance is incorporated.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

It looks like this year's Champion Hurdle may be run at an even to quick tempo, with both Appreciate It and Teahupoo generally going forward. However, both took a lead on their most recent starts so perhaps we'll be erring towards just an even gallop, in which case all should be able to run their races.

Champion Hurdle Selection

In that earlier preview, I found it impossible to oppose Honeysuckle. I still do, though after an electric gear change to settle the race last time she didn't really stretch away as it appeared she might. As a consequence, I went fishing for a wager in a different pond, the 'without the favourite' market. There I plumped for Epatante each way at 11/2. She's now as big as 7/1 in that market, and in all honesty I've cooled on her prospects of running second to Honeysuckle (and therefore winning that bet) a little, though she still has grand claims of being in the first four.

I'm not keen on backing Appreciate It at around 6/4 in the 'without' market either, nor the untested in Grade 1 or on fast ground Teahupoo, or any of his five-year-old contemporaries. No, if I was having a swipe right now, it might be Not So Sleepy without Honeysuckle at 33/1+ each way. He was 5th last year at 125/1 outright, and has dead heated with Epatante in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth this season.

But, on balance, I'll stick with what I have and cheer the champ to repeat and remain unbeaten.

Suggestion: Consider Not So Sleepy each way without Honeysuckle at anything above 25/1. Not really a betting race now.

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4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

The Mares' Hurdle had been dominated by Willie Mullins almost since its inception in 2008. Mullins was actually unrepresented in that inaugural running, but then went on to win nine of the next ten editions, six of them with the fantastic though only occasionally seen Quevega. However, more recently, the omnipotent Closutton barn has enjoyed success in the Mares' Hurdle only once in the last five years, and not at all in the last three.

Related, and perhaps more remarkable, is that the last five favourites in the race - all of them short - were turned over. Limini was 3rd at 6/4 in 2017, the same position occupied by 1/2 Apple's Jade in 2018; Benie Des Dieux fell in 2019 when sent off 10/11 and she was beaten by Honeysuckle a year later at odds of 4/6, before most recently 10/11 Concertista was run out of it by Black Tears in the shadow of the post.

There's no shortie in the betting this time, current prices being 3/1 and upwards your pick. Tenuously top of that pile is Telmesomethinggirl, trained by Henry de Bromhead and running in the Kenny Alexander colours of Honeysuckle, meaning it could be quite a 45 minutes or so for connections. This mare won the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at last year's Festival over two miles, but has been beaten in all three starts since. If that's the unpromising news, her most recent effort - when a staying on third to Royal Kahala at Leopardstown - was definitely her season best and she comes here perhaps sitting on a big one, as they say.

In front of Telmesomethinggirl but largely whacked before and since this term was Heaven Help Us, winner of the Coral Cup a year ago. Like the favourite, she brings Festival-winning form to the party and her form string at this intermediate distance is 12. She seems better going left-handed and with just a little ease in the ground, conditions she'll get here. This has presumably been the target for Paul Hennessy's charge; he also owns and bred her.

Queen's Brook will be Gordon Elliott's hope for the race, the mare having run third in the 2020 Champion Bumper behind Ferny Hollow before skipping last year's Festival. Her recent form is consistent and ties in with the likes of Burning Victory but she's won only once from five starts over hurdles since her maiden score.

Burning Victory was the beneficiary of Goshen's black swan event at the last in the Triumph Hurdle of 2020 and she's travelled all over the place since. Specifically, she's taken in the Galway Hurdle (7th), a Deauville handicap (1st), the Cesarewitch (2nd), a Navan handicap hurdle (tailed off), the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle (3rd) and that defeat of Queen's Brook last time. There are plenty of top class efforts in that sequence, a positive which has to be balanced against the busy campaign; that said, she's had only the one run in 2022.

It's hard to know what to make of Stormy Ireland, who has won a lot for Willie Mullins either side of a curiously disappointing sojourn at Paul Nicholls' yard. She was fortunate to win the Relkeel Hurdle here on New Year's Day but that showed the track holds few fears, and she was a Grade 1 winner at this trip and on this sort of ground at Punchestown last May. Still, she's not getting any younger - this will be her third run in the race having finished second in 2019 and fifth in 2020.

Mrs Milner, like Heaven Help Us, was a handicap hurdle winner at last year's Festival, her score coming in the three mile Pertemps Final. This is a different test, more about speed than stamina, though she had the gears to win a couple of lower grade two mile hurdles earlier in her career.

Nicky Henderson saddles Marie's Rock, who ran a nice race without troubling the judge in the Greatwood Hurdle in November. Subsequently stepped up to this range, she won either side of a non-completion when badly hampered by a faller. On ratings she has a few pounds to find with some of these but her trainer is making optimistic noises (for whatever that is worth).

Yet another former Festival winner is Indefatigable whose 2020 Martin Pipe win was a red letter day for trainer Paul Webber but also for geegeez-sponsored then conditional rider, Rex Dingle. Rex came with the proverbial wet sail there, weaving through tiring rivals up the run in to present the mare on the line, a style which has proven more difficult to pull off in smaller field, more steadily run contests since. There is a good bit of pace projected for this one, however, perhaps allowing her to finish a little better, and almost all of her best form has come at Cheltenham including when fourth in this last year and fifth in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle in 2019, either side of that Martin Pipe score.

Echoes In Rain enjoyed a purple patch last spring where a hat-trick of wins was capped by Grade 1 honours in a Punchestown Festival novice hurdle. At the top table this term, she's found life tougher, twice getting a distant view of Sharjah's tail before finishing closer to Honeysuckle albeit in a steadily run contest. This is shallower than those meetings with Champion Hurdle aspirants, actual and absent, and it wouldn't be a total shock if she were to bounce back. She will also have to prove her stamina on this first attempt beyond two miles, her pedigree not guaranteeing she'll stay.

And an honourable mention for the admirable Martello Sky, whose habit of winning must be delightful for connections. To wit, she has eight first places from just twelve career starts, among them a brace of Listed Hurdles. This will be tougher though the extra distance should mean she'll be able to get into a better rhythm than was the case when midfield in last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle. Both Western Victory and Nada To Prada look to be pitching above their level.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

This could be pretty quick but possibly not overly strongly run, with Stormy Ireland and Western Victory going forward and Heaven Help Us close up. Telmesomethinggirl and Echoes In Rain will be amongst those looking to affect the outcome with a late rally.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

This is a really tricky race with if's and but's about most of them. In the absence of a reliable option, I'll take a chance on Heaven Help Us being trained for the day in what seem to be her favoured conditions. Indefatigable looks like getting her optimal conditions for the first time in a while and may be over-priced for hail mary each way players.

Suggestion: Try Heaven Help Us at 12/1. Give Indefatigable a second glance at 28/1 or bigger.

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

A feature of the handicap hurdles this year is the almost total dominance of the top end of the handicap by Irish runners. This is as a direct result of the recalibration of ratings in the British hurdling division and, depending on your perspective, it either shows how much better the Irish horses are or it gives Team GB (ugh) a better chance. My opinion is that those two perspectives are not mutually exclusive and both hold water.

Looking down the weights, the first British-trained runner is actually the top weight, ex-French Petit Tonnerre, who perhaps shouldn't have won on British debut! Next in is the Paul Nicholls entry, Bell Ex One. Closer scrutiny reveals he's not raced since qualifying for this for his previous trainer, in Ireland! The next UK-trained entry is Saint Segal, number 14 in the weights (!), trained by Jane Williams. Jane is married to Nick Williams, who won the Fred Boodles (Winter as was) in 2017 with Flying Tiger having trained third-placed Coo Star Sivola a year earlier. Five further swings at this prize since have come up dry, but Saint Segal looks a legit contender: he was second in the Grade 1 Finale Hurdle having pulled too hard early and is unbeaten in a pair of spins sandwiching that G1. The likely quicker pace ought to suit well.

Meanwhile, further up the weights, Gordon Elliott seems to be the main man for the occasion. Uninvited last year, he saddled five in 2020 and, of the 22 who set off, his quintet finished 1-3-4-8-9. In 2019, one of his trio of entries ran second; and in 2018 he scored at 33/1 from just two runners. A pair of runners in each of the 2014-2017 renewals yielded no more than a single fourth-placed finish, but Flaxen Flare was a 25/1 winner in 2013.

This year, Elliott has five entered up. His main chance appears to be The Tide Turns, whose three qualifying races were a comfortable victory in a 20-runner maiden hurdle (2nd, 4th and 5th both won their only starts since), fourth to Triumph Hurdle favourite Vauban in a Grade 1 at the Dublin Racing Festival, and another fourth against elders in the Red Mills Trial won by Teahupoo. That third dance was hastily arranged to facilitate qualification for the Boodles though I'm not sure 137 is a gimme of a mark considering he was only a mildly progressive mid-70's handicapper on the level for Sir Mark Prescott.

As mentioned, Elliott has twice won this with a lesser fancied runner, 33/1 Veneer Of Charm in 2018 and 25/1 Flaxen Flare in 2013, so his others deserve consideration. That pair both won their hurdle debuts before finishing second and then nowhere in two subsequent pre-Boodles runs. This year, Britzka and Ebasari both won before failing to follow up twice, as did the aforementioned The Tide Turns. The market is currently a little more circumspect - both Britzka and Ebasari are around 16/1 - though the play book is there for all to see.

The favourite, and very short at that, is trained by Willie Mullins and owned by Mrs S Ricci, and he is called Gaelic Warrior. Still a maiden after three hurdle starts in France he has a mark of just 129 which compares very favourably with his French peg of 63kg (multiply by 2.2 to get 138.6 pounds, making GW ten pounds 'well in'). In his most recent start, Gaelic Warrior was outpaced on heavy ground before finishing strongly to take third of 14. The second horse, Golden Son, has since won a Grade 2 before claiming runner up honours in a G1; while the winner, Sans Bruit, has won a Grade 3 and been third in a Grade 2.

He's undeniably well treated, then, but hitting a serious flat spot on heavy ground doesn't translate brilliantly to the rough and tumble of a fast ground 22-runner charge across Cleeve Hill. Luck in running is needed by all; most have a little more meat on their price than this lad. Willie is 0/14 in this race but went very close last year when Saint Sam was second (Ciel De Neige 3rd in 2019, too).

Joseph O'Brien won this in 2019 with Band Of Outlaws, and saddles Champion Green this time. A relative slow starter he broke his maiden at the fourth time of asking, over nine furlongs at Punchestown. The second won next time and was rated 89 when taking on handicappers for the first time, the third - also trained by Joseph - has won a couple of minor hurdle races, and the fourth won a Leopardstown maiden next time. That's a verbose way of saying he probably achieved a 90-odd level of form on the flat before sights were switched to timber.

In three completed starts over hurdles, he was a close up fourth in a big field on debut, 2nd of 15 having drifted from 8/11 to 5/4 the next day and, after a slipped saddle led to pulling up two back, he made all and bolted up at 4/6 in a Naas maiden hurdle. That maiden score, like his flat maiden win, was on good ground and, with the drying forecast, conditions look to be in his corner.

In the last twelve years, every winner of this race was either a single figure price (five winners) or 25/1+ (seven). Last year's 80/1 bomb was only a minor outlier on a recent history that includes a 40/1, three 33/1's and two 25/1's - so maybe this is the race to turn the form book upside down. If that's your thing, let's mess about with the concept for a minute.

Of those seven bombs, all ran in a non-handicap last time out (four of them in G1 or G2 company), all had four or fewer UK/Irish hurdle starts (though three had raced in France before), and five of seven were beaten 15 lengths or more last time. I think that's the one that puts punters off the scent. The only one really fitting the bill from a price perspective is Tanganyika who is second reserve. He is quite interesting on his run behind subsequent Grade 1 1-2 Kyrov and Golden Son in France. Now with Venetia Williams, Tanganyika was beaten eight and a half lengths in that Auteuil race. Kyrov is currently rated 75kg (165), Golden Son 71 (156) and Tanganyika's mark in France is 61.5 (135). Here, he has just 121, a full stone below his French rating. If he gets a run, he might be better than a 66/1 poke.

Gordon's Britzka and Ebasari both measure up on this 'interesting rag' angle but are shorter than ideal to take the chance. I might be tempted if either slid out to 25/1 or bigger.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection

Fast, frantic, furious, frenetic, ferocious and other adjectives beginning with 'f'. Doubtful stayers need not apply. Note that neither Gaelic Warrior nor Milldam have raced in UK or Ireland to this point. Their French form suggests both will be waited with to varying degrees.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection

It's a really tough heat with even fewer clues than your average Festival handicap. The British handicapper seems not to be on the same page with his European counterparts, ranking Irish form more highly and French form lower. On that basis, it's easy enough to bypass Gaelic Warrior at such cramped odds and I don't really want to be with The Tide Turns at not much bigger, though naturally I respect the chance of both.

Rather, I'll take a small swing at Champion Green and Saint Segal, both of which ought to be suited by this setup and both of which come from yards that know how to win the Fred Boodles. Jockeys are important at this meeting, however, and the experience of Rachael Blackmore versus the exuberance of Chester Williams tilts the pendulum in favour of Champion Green if having to choose between them. 

Suggestion: Try Champion Green at 12/1 or perhaps 16/1 Saint Segal, and watch the betting on Ebasari and Britzka. Get lots of extra places. Prepare to sigh if/when either Gaelic Warrior or The Tide Turns prevail.

*

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

The nearly-four-miler as it has become known is in many ways the bellwether for the meeting and indeed the sport. Once (a long time ago) the most important race at the Festival, rank amateurs have given best to crack amateurs (there was a cheaper pun comparator which I'm proud to have resisted!), the distance has been truncated, and the quality and experience thresholds have been elevated.

In other words, this is a completely different race from the one which carried the same name 15 years ago. Back then, journeyman Corinthians on massive-priced pigs in a poke in huge fields played a version of 'last man or woman standing'. Now, field sizes are smaller, the quality of bipeds and quadrupeds alike is higher, and it is consequently a far more predictable affair. Note, not predictable, only more predictable.

On field sizes, in 2016 there were 20 runners; over the next three years there were 18, 16 and 18 runners; but, since the distance was reduced to 3m6f and it has become more about class than out and out stamina, field sizes have reduced to 14 and then 12 last year... and now just seven horses are slated to go to post. That is not a good look. To the septet...

Experience has counted for a lot in recent times, with nine of the past ten winners having four-plus seasonal runs and four-plus chase starts. That's a potential knock for the strong Willie Mullins-trained fancy, Stattler, who is unbeaten in two fencing contests. In 2013, Mullins won with the unbeaten-in-three Back In Focus, but more recently both 9/4 Ballyward (fell) and 10/11 Carefully Selected (unseated) have succumbed to their inexperience at the obstacles. Still, Stattler's form credentials are robust and his stamina is assured if his leaping holds up at the expected quicker tempo on quicker turf.

Fitting the historical profile more snugly is the Gordon Elliott inmate, Run Wild Fred, who represents Gigginstown and is ridden by Jamie Codd. Codd has piloted the winner in three of the last six renewals where amateur jockeys contested (professionals last year due to Covid), two of the three coming for Elliott.

Run Wild Fred has almost as much experience as his rider, being a veteran of ten chases, the same number as Cause Of Causes (Codd/Elliott), Tiger Roll (Elliott), and Rathvinden; and second place finishes in the Irish Grand National and a Grade 1 novice chase attest both to stamina and class. He does finish second unnervingly frequently - he's allowed one to pass in five of his last six chases - but otherwise is a strong box-ticker for all that he's no Prestbury Park previous.

Next in is another Irish-trained horse, last year's Albert Bartlett winner, Vanillier. Apparently a spring horse, he improved on a February drubbing last year to win at the Festival and trainer Gavin Cromwell will hope that sizable deficits behind Fury Road, Run Wild Fred and Stattler in his two runs in 2022 can be overcome. It's taking plenty on faith at his price.

Ontheropes is a slight rarity in that he's a Cheveley Park Stud entry, and trained by Willie Mullins, that is not favourite. He has had plenty of experience, however, which is definitely the way to go in the National Hunt Chase, and breeding suggests this trip is within range. The form of his fourth in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury in the autumn is strong and if quicker ground ekes out a pound or two, he could cause a minor surprise.

Gordon also has Braeside, whose two career wins have come on heavy ground, as Profiler handily highlights. He's slow enough for the old four-miler but probably not quick enough for this classier, shorter iteration of the race.

The best of the two trained by Rebecca Curtis - the only two British entries to stand their ground - should be Pats Fancy, who has risen through the handicap ranks this season but was comprehensively hammered at both Cheltenham and Aintree in Grade 1 novice hurdles a year ago. On his latest outing, Pats Fancy was a three length second to Bravemansgame in receipt of 16 pounds. That form is not good enough here. His stable mate, Beatthebullet, is more than two stone 'wrong' with the top rated of these and appears to be the much maligned 'social runner'.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

No sign of an out and out burn up, and just a couple that might want to lead. Most are fairly versatile regarding run style so this looks like being run at a fairly even gallop, at least in the early part of the race.

National Hunt Chase Selection

I'm not totally sold on Stattler for all that he can obviously win. Run Wild Fred looks the one, especially with the striking booking of Jamie Codd. And last year's Albert Bartlett winner, Vanillier, must also be a contender on that evidence though not on much evidence since.

Suggestion: Back Run Wild Fred to win at around 9/4.

*

It's a first day light on runners but brimming with class, and it may be sobering to remember that the opening stanza is often the best chance for us punters to get a few quid up on those bookie types. Regardless, there will be 21 more opportunities hereafter so keep some powder dry!

Good luck!

Matt



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Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2021: Day One Preview, Tips

After what has been as non-standard a run-up to the Festival as any in history, we are here, finally, and it is time for the talking to end and the racing to begin. Hallelujah.

Whether the micro of the constant buzzing of trainers who have "never had him better" or the macro media onslaught in light of the Elliott saga, racing fans have endured a put upon few weeks. But we're not here to talk about that; no, we're here to ponder the prospects of a pod of perfectly pristine quadruPeds. So let's get to that, pronto!

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

Nothing is usual in 2021, not even the start time for the first roarless Supreme ever. Tune in at 1.30 and you'll likely be watching socially distanced post-race interviews, so that's perhaps the best tip you'll find in the following several thousand words: be ready at twenty-past-one!

Just eight go to post and, as is often the case in recent years, we've a strong favourite from the Willie Mullins stable to kick the week off. This time it is the seven-year-old Appreciate It, bidding to get the perma-champ off to a winning start. What? Seven years old, you say? Too old according to the trends. Erm, not really, no. You see, of the 17 seven-year-olds to run in the race since 2008, only four were priced at 14/1 or shorter: they finished first (17/2), third (4/5), fourth (14/1), fifth (14/1). Not bad at all.

It won't be age that beats Appreciate It. But it might be quicker turf, a theme which will apply to many runners this week. His entire career to date has been conducted on yielding or softer so good to soft is taken somewhat on trust. In fairness, the son of Jeremy's more visually impressive performances have come when the ground was less testing so there's a case to be made that he'll be better for less mud. I certainly am not looking to make a ground-based case against Appreciate It, whose dual Grade 1 scores in Irish novice hurdles are supported by running up in last season's Champion Bumper here: he has a rock solid chance for all that his price tells as much far more succinctly than I have.

His win in the Chanelle Pharma is probably the best piece of form coming into this, and the second there, Ballyadam, is a player here, too. He travelled up to within a length of Appreciate It but was then outstayed by the winner having bungled the final flight; but the way he travelled into contention suggests a sounder surface will be a plus to his chance. Ignoring a below par effort at Christmas, he is already a Grade 1 winning hurdler having taken the Royal Bond in late November. He's one of the Cheveley Park runners inherited by Henry de Bromhead from the Elliott yard.

The third from that Leopardstown Grade 1, Blue Lord, also lines up with a plausible chance. He was ridden 'cold' that day, making up a fair bit of ground but under heavy pressure to do so. That felt more of a staying performance, or else one where an all guns blazing early tempo over two miles would suit; this may not be that, and the County might have been a better option. What is worth saying is that if the Chanelle Pharma form works out here, Hook Up (fourth) will be an interesting contender in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle on Thursday.

One place behind Hook Up, in fifth, was Irascible. Beaten nine lengths by Appreciate It both here and in his previous start, in the Christmas Grade 1 over the same Leopardstown course and distance, he'd need to improve for the sounder surface to turn tables with that one. It's not impossible, but it does look unlikely.

The best of the British, on known form at least, looks to be Harry Fry's Metier. An easy winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle on heavy ground, he'll bid to replicate Summerville Boy's 2018 Tolworth-Supreme double. But it was heavy at Cheltenham in 2018, and Metier has yet to race on anything this quick over hurdles. His flat form was good but the pick of that was also when the wet was rife. For all that he's won his three hurdle races by five lengths-plus each time in the manner of one capable of more, I'm not convinced by the strength of his form and want to take him on at the price.

The second UK runner in the betting, Soaring Glory, is perhaps the more ascendant form wise. He won the Betfair Hurdle, a competitive 23-runner affair, by three easy lengths last month, travelling smoothly from mid-division and scampering clear. A very decent bumper horse last season, he took his time to get his jumping together as a novice hurdler this term, but is improving and might be one that needs a strong pace to run at. Whether he gets that in this short field is unclear, though For Pleasure and possibly Appreciate It and/or Grumpy Charley may make it a fair test.

Grumpy Charley and For Pleasure are both worthy entries in this representing smaller owners and trainers, and I hope they run creditably. But I can't see them winning even though I did back the latter for this on Boxing Day. He was 50/1 then and will be that price on the day!

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

For Pleasure is the confirmed front runner in this field, but both Appreciate It and Grumpy Charley have led more often than not recently. It ought to be an even tempo given the smaller field and run style versatility of most participants.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

I don't especially rate the home challenge in this - and might well be proven wrong on that - so it's all about the Chanelle Pharma form for me. Appreciate It is the right favourite and, if handling the quicker ground, ought to win. But I'm backing Ballyadam each way. He's a stronger traveller than the jolly, something likely to be more of a factor on good to soft than soft to heavy and, though his jumping is a slight concern - as is what he finds off the bridle - he looks quite hard to keep out of the frame.

Suggestion: The Supreme is the 'load up' race where all bookies want you to deposit to your betting accounts and play with them. To that end, offers abound and you should take advantage of any and all of them. It's worth putting some time into it because, honestly, nobody able to access concessions should lose on the Supreme. Read the T's & C's, caveat emptor, et cetera.

A few of note are Skybet's £10 max stake money back as cash if you lose (first bet only), MansionBet's paying out as a winner if your horse is second (£10 max stake, £250 max return), and Hill's £10 max stake money back as cash if second (first bet only).

I'm backing 11/2 Ballyadam, and may have a tiny e/w on 25/1 Irascible who probably did too much on the front last time.

*

1.55 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

The Supreme looks a fascinating and classy race, but the Arkle looks a blinding screamer, or a screaming blinder if you prefer. Or 'looked'. Shishkin, unbeaten in seven completed starts under Rules, versus Energumene, unbeaten in his last five, versus Allmankind, unbeaten in three over fences. Throw in cameos from the likes of Captain Guinness and Franco De Port and it's a race to truly savour. But... the withdrawal of Energumene due to a minor setback has robbed this Arkle of a major part of its lustre.

In the absence of the pick of the Irish novice speed chasers this season, it looks a more straightforward cat and mouse affair between the pace horse, Allmankind, and the class horse, Shishkin.

Allmankind has got one way of racing and that's hard on the front end; if another horse tries to lock horns with him, the balance of probabilities is that the other horse, or both duellers, will be spent before the final climb to the jam stick. It would have been fascinating to see how Energumene, also a confirmed front-runner, would have handled that sort of a challenge.

In the revised line up, where just six go to post, what is most compelling about is that, if Allmankind gets an 'easy' on the lead, he may be more of a danger to Shishkin than if Energumene had been present and had taken him on; in that latter scenario, which I think was most likely - to some degree at least - the dial moved in favour of Shishkin, who will bide his time behind whatever speed plays out in front of him. But now Allmankind may get his way a little more easily up top and, as a result, will likely get closer to the winning line before getting overhauled, if indeed he is overhauled.

But still, I feel this sets up perfectly for Shishkin, who has shown he can take a position wherever and outclass his opposition. True, his Grade 1 form is over hurdles, but that was here in last season's Supreme; and he's yet to face more than three runners in three chase starts. But his form got a reasonable boost when Tamaroc Du Mathan, 13 lengths in his debt at Kempton at Christmas, won a Grade 2 last month.

And what of the rest? Captain Guinness and Franco De Port both add depth.

Captain Guinness has arguably run his best two races when failing to get round: first when brought down at the second last while still well in contention in last year's Supreme, and then when challenging Energumene for the lead and taking a soft fall - again at the second last - in the Irish Arkle last month. But there's also the pulled up effort when found to be clinically abnormal post-race on chasing debut, and that combination of misfortunes makes for a Scrabble rack of form: B-P12F and a growing list of excuses. Regardless, assuming he stands up, he has strong podium claims.

Franco De Port is the wise guy 'pieces play'. He got the whole lot when Felix Desjy and Benruben blasted off in front in the Leopardstown Grade 1 Novice Chase at Christmas, and he was good enough to come through for a respectful second to Energumene in another Grade 1 over the same course and distance last time. There was no pace collapse for him to run at there and his case is largely based on a searing early gallop, which looks less likely since the withdrawal of Energumene.

Eldorado Allen is interesting: as Colin Tizzard was confirming on Racing TV he was running in the Grand Annual, declarations closed and he'd been left in the Arkle. Oops. He was easily brushed aside by Shishkin at Doncaster last time and, though Tizzard claims the horse "was wrong" that day, it is very difficult to see a reversal of placings especially given this was apparently not the plan anyway.

That leaves Numitor, who has a lot to find on form but who may have a part to play in the race as a confirmed front-runner. I'm not sure he can live with Allmankind given he's rated 32 pounds inferior to that one, but he might set the Skelton horse alight over the first couple of fences. Still, the likelihood is that Allmankind should be able to swat the attentions of that pace-pressing interloper without too much ado.

Arkle Pace Projection

It will be quick early but possibly not mega-quick. That depends on how long Numitor can lay up with Allmankind (or whether the former will be ridden more conservatively in a bid to finish his race off). Regardless, Shishkin and Captain Guinness will take a lead with Franco De Port and Eldorado Allen likely to be played later.

Arkle Chase Selection

It's quite possible that I've underrated Allmankind who does a lot early in his races but still has a bit left late on and who is a Grade 1 winner over fences. But I see this going readily to Shishkin and the exacta being completed by either Captain Guinness or Franco De Port, probably the Captain.

Suggestion: Back Shishkin to beat Captain Guinness in an exacta, or Captain Guinness without the favourite..

*

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

The first of the Festival handicaps is historically one of the more predictable puzzles to unravel. Indeed, while Gold Chieftain, Chief Dan George and Joes Edge each returned between 28/1 and 50/1 when prevailing, the other 17 winners this century returned 14/1 or shorter, with 15 of them at 10/1 or shorter.

Tony Martin won this in 2006, Francois Doumen in 2005 and Christy Roche in 2003, but generally speaking this is for British-based trainers. Jonjo O'Neill and David Pipe have each won it thrice, Nicky Henderson twice.

Applying a few weighting factors (don't ask), my shortlist is Happygolucky, Aye Right, One For The Team and Nietzsche.

Kim Bailey trains Happygolucky. Bailey has saddled three runners in the Ultima since 1997, Bettys Boy winning in 1999 and Vinndication running fourth last year. Somewhere in between was an outsider that pulled up. This chap is lightly raced and has excellent track form including a Festival fourth of 23 in last year's Martin Pipe handicap hurdle. That ticks the big field, class and course boxes, and a novice chase win at this distance - on the New Course here, this is the Old Course - is another feather in his cap. He's a rubbish price but should go very well.

Aye Right is a better price, almost double Happygolucky's, and has excellent handicap form including seconds in the Ladbroke Trophy (Hennessy as was) and Sky Bet Chase this season. He's inched up the handicap eight pounds for not winning which seems harsh but he's earned those increments for nearly winning multiple times. He might nearly win again here - was a fair fifth of ten in last year's RSA at the track - and I backed him after my mate Gavin Priestley of nagnagnag and Festival Trends fame told me I ought to. Think I'll probably do the field to beat Aye Right exactas...

One For The Team is seemingly a bit less obvious, but he does represent the shrewd Festival handicap firm of Nick Williams. Four starts in chase company this term, three in novices/beginners' and last time in the Sky Bet mean he's an upwardly mobile novice. While his Sky Bet fifth was a touch underwhelming (sent off 5/1), all of his best form is on a sounder surface than the soft turf that day. Prior to Doncaster last time, he was close to top novices in Graded company.

Nietzsche is a lot more left field. He's never run over this trip and was last seen chasing home Sky Pirate at a distance in third over two miles. Clearly pacier than many in the field, he's the sort that if he stays could hit the board. He's a 25/1 shot which feels reasonable enough.

As always in the handicaps, though slightly less so this year given the smaller fields, plenty more with chances.

Ultima Pace Projection

A good even gallop looks likely. Aye Right, Happygolucky, Pym and The Wolf could be to the fore, so too possibly Milan Native and Vintage Clouds. But none of these is an out-and-out need the lead type so expect common sense to prevail. All the fancied runners should be in the front half of the field early to mid-race; some of them will still be there at the end!

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: The prices have collapsed on the top few. Happygolucky, Aye Right and One For The Team are only about 11/10 combined but that's perhaps not a terrible price given they all come here with strong credentials and, in two cases, upside to boot. SkyBet are paying seven places - a fifth the odds - in this. Use them if they're price competitive and you're able to get a bet on there. Nietzsche is the seven places play.

*

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

The day one highlight is the Champion Hurdle which, this year, features a shoot out between two top class mares who both won on this day last year and a five-year-old gelding who should have won by half the track a year ago last Friday. They are, respectively, reigning champ Epatante, Mares' Hurdle winner Honeysuckle, and the desperately unlucky Triumph Hurdle last flight faller, Goshen.

Since last March, the trio have taken divergent paths. Epatante was a facile scorer in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November but was then surprisingly beaten (at odds of 1/5) in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle in late December. She's not yet been seen in 2021. Trainer Nicky Henderson insists he has isolated whatever the issue was when she under-performed at Christmas and, if he has, Epatante remains the one to beat: she's a pure two-miler who handles good to soft well and she has bundles of class.

But she's not the favourite. That honour is Honeysuckle's, the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare's unbeaten career now extending to ten races, six of them in Grade 1's and five of them against males. If that's the good news - and it is very good - then the reservations are twofold: trip, and ground. Honeysuckle has only raced over the minimum three times, scoring by 3 1/2 lengths in a good ground Listed hurdle, by half a length from Darver Star in last year's Irish Champion Hurdle on yielding, and by ten lengths from Abacadabras on soft to heavy in this year's Irish Champion Hurdle.

So she's a dual Grade 1 scorer at two miles, what's the problem? The problem - if indeed it is one - is that she was entitled to win the Listed contest, she scraped home against Darver Star, and it was very deep ground when she won last time. The combination of quicker ground and the shorter trip might - only might - find her out. And, at 9/4 or so, that's enough to put me off a touch. On the flip side, this does look like being a proper test with three confirmed trailblazers in the field, and she has proven class and stamina.

Goshen has been both the Messiah and a very naughty boy in the past twelve months. Fate conspired horribly against him in the Triumph Hurdle last year when, with the race in bar-a-fall safekeeping, he got his hooves tangled together on the landing side of the final flight and came down. It was such a freak incident and devilishly unfortunate. After that, Gary Moore's stable star went missing in action for a while: beaten a couple of times on the flat when better was expected and then completely flunking in the International Hurdle in December.

He could have been backed at 25/1 after that minor catastrophe but was no bigger than 9/2 after romping away with the Kingwell Hurdle last month. So which Goshen will we see this time? It's hard to say, particularly as a literal reading of the 22-length margin at Wincanton seems ill-advised. I am a massive fan of this horse, but from a value perspective cannot bet him at his current price. An interesting side note is that Champion Hurdle day will be Goshen's fifth birthday.

One I did back, at 6/1 (current odds 8/1, sigh) shortly before he notably under-performed, was Abacadabras. Second to Shishkin by a small margin in the Supreme last season, he's since run second to Aspire Tower, beaten Saint Roi, clunked behind Sharjah, and finished those ten lengths behind Honeysuckle. In spite of all that, he's flirting with a single figure price as I write. Why? Well there's that course and distance run last year, and there is also the contention that he will prefer this better ground and, crucially, more pace to run at.

The under-rated horse in the field is Silver Streak. I am as guilty as anyone of picking holes in his form, but he just keeps on turning up and running with enormous credit. Third in Espoir D'Allen's 2019 Champion Hurdle, he was only sixth in the race last year (on soft); but to that he can add a win and a second in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and third in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth. His best form appears to be on better ground and he ought to produce another bold effort.

Last year's runner up, Sharjah, tries again and the Willie Mullins-trained four-time Grade 1 winner has a squeak on his best form; but his best form is pretty much all at Leopardstown, ignoring that fine effort in this race a year ago. Naturally, we should not ignore that effort and he is yet another runner who cannot be discounted.

Mullins also saddles the unknown quantity, to British and Irish audiences at least, James Du Berlais. Second in two French Grade 1's, most recently when chinned by the width of a waffery-thin mint, the drop back to two miles on quickish ground is far more of a speed test than the two and a half on heavy he's been facing all season. Regardless, he has a high cruising speed and some class; whether he can lay up with these, I don't know, but he's probably about the right price if you wanted to invest in the answer to that question.

Aspire Tower's form ties in with Goshen, Abacadabras and Sharjah and, on those form lines he has a mountain to climb with an on-song Goshen but nothing at all to find with the other pair. I'm still generally wary of five-year-olds in the Champion Hurdle and he wouldn't be my idea of the winner.

Although a dual Grade 1 winner, Saldier is very hard to fancy off the back of two last place beaten out of sight efforts.

Not So Sleepy is occasionally not so fussed about being a racehorse but, on his day, he's pretty good. A front-runner normally, he adds to the pace of Goshen and Aspire Tower to ensure it will be a truly run affair. He was pulled up in this last year on soft ground and a similar outcome looks probable given the perceived early speed contention.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

Fast. Each of Goshen, Not So Sleepy and Aspire Tower has led in three of their prior four starts, and raced prominently on the other occasion. Silver Streak also led last time though is generally happy to be handy.

Champion Hurdle Selection

I love Goshen but I don't see him winning this. The mares at the head of the market deserve to be there and they may dominate. Which wins is tougher: I do harbour concerns about the trip on quickish ground for Honeysuckle whereas Epatante looked bombproof before her Christmas flunk. If she's back, she's definite value at north of 3/1 - obviously you have to factor that 'if' into the price. If there is one with which to take them on, it might be Abacadabras who ran his best race in the Supreme on the same day last year and for whom the strong pace will be a plus.

Suggestion: The bookies look to have this about right in the win market, but 8/1 Abacadabras is a reasonable each way or place only play. Epatante at 7/2 is perfectly fair enough as a win proposition although, as mentioned, there is little value to be had in this very mature market.

*

3.40 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

The fact that this was won last year by Honeysuckle and that there is a perennial debate about the favourites ducking either the Stayers' or Champion Hurdles is a testament to the quality of mare who shows up here. As we know, Honey goes the Champion route this time, leaving last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle winner, Concertista, with an open goal. Or at least it might have been had not Roksana decided to swerve the Stayers' and, erm, Rok up in opposition.

That's good for the race, which has featured some terrific head-to-heads in recent years, including Honeysuckle versus Benie Des Dieux last term, and which was looking a little one-sided until Roksana routed here. Still, it remains a shallow enough heat and a shock is unlikely.

Concertista had been a fair but not great flat filly for Christophe Ferland in France, winning once in a ten furlong handicap, before changing hands at the Arqana summer sale for €75,000. Not a snip at the time but neither was it a king's ransom, especially with the benefit of hindsight as we now know that this is the game for which she was made. On her debut for Willie Mullins, after 620 days off the track, she ran a fantastic second in the inaugural Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at the 2019 Festival.

The plan after that was clearly to come back in 2020 for the same race, and she duly danced home by a dozen lengths in a field of 22! Since then she's won a couple of minor Graded stakes with this day in mind throughout. Willie Mullins is a peerless target trainer with his mares - see Quevega, Benie Des Dieux, Annie Power - and Concertista looks the next on that particular conveyor belt of female stars.

She's probably not achieved a lot in beating the same rival - Minella Melody - twice, although the well beaten third from the second of those wins, Black Tears, has won a Grade 3 since and re-opposes here. Black Tears herself has Festival back class having run second in the Coral Cup last season. She's a strong travelling sort who handles big fields well - a pity then that this is the third smallest field in the (short) history of the race.

Returning to Roksana, the Dan Skelton-trained mare has looked superb at three miles this season, improving her official rating, her Racing Post Ratings, and her Topspeed ratings. Strange that connections have opted for the two and a half mile Mares' rather than the three mile Stayers', and a bit of a shame in my view. Still it does make for an interesting battle: Concertista is arguably better at two miles, Roksana at three, and here they both are compromising at two and a half.

Black Tears is a two-and-a-half miler but not at the level of the other pair, a comment which applies equally to the failed chaser, Dame De Compagnie. Failed chaser is a little harsh as she won her first fencing start and was all but brought down on her only other attempt. Still, redirection into the Mares' Hurdle field looks a fair move given she won last year's Coral Cup, in which Black Tears was second, and she won it going away. Her Cheltenham record is three wins from five starts and she's trained by Nicky Henderson, who is Champions League class at the Festival. She may actually prove a more potent threat to Concertista than Roksana given her affection for the trip and her change of gear.

It is very difficult to make a case for the remainder, though Indefatigable also has great Cheltenham form including when winning the Martin Pipe last time under an inspired withering run from geegeez-sponsored jockey, Rex Dingle. She has little to find with Dame De Compagnie on an old line of form but she does have to overcome a lamentable effort last time. Minella Melody has, as mentioned, run second to Concertista twice this term so it wouldn't be a shock if she finished in the same parish for a third time; and Great White Shark has some excellent handicap form, both on the flat (three-length winner of the Cesarewitch) and over hurdles (won the Guinness Handicap Hurdle at the Galway Festival, third to Indefatigable in the the Martin Pipe last year).

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

A good even gallop looks most likely with Floressa and Minella Melody front rank, followed by My Sister Sarah and Black Tears. Concertista and Roksana are expected to be played late.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

Concertista looks the most likely winner by far, something a very quick glance at the betting would tell you. I liked the way Dame De Compagnie ran through the line over this trip at the Festival last year and, reverting to hurdles, she might be the each way thievery play. I've loved Roksana throughout her career but she has looked so good over three miles this term that it's a surprise she drops back down here, especially after getting beaten a dozen lengths in the race a year ago. You can't bet them all and she's the one I'd take on here (though I'd have backed her in the Stayers').

Suggestion: Bet Concertista to win if you like, she ought to at least nearly do that. Or play Dame De Compagnie each way or without the favourite.

*

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

Wednesday's placepot nightcap is now Tuesday's placepot leg six and it's not easier for the change of day. I'm not going to get too stuck in to the form here. It's a guess up, plain and simple, a case of who can deceive the handicapper the best. Or, more politely, who has most scope to improve from their current mark. The sportsman in me wants Cabot Cliffs or Saint Sam to win as they've been campaigned with their light out front; the cynic in me sees something like Coltor going in.

But, in all seriousness, I haven't a clue. Tough race to close out the placepot.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle Pace Projection

Fast, frantic, furious, frenetic, ferocious and other adjectives beginning with 'f'. Doubtful stayers need not apply.

Boodles Handicap Hurdle selection

In the spirit of almost anything being capable of winning, I'll chuck a fiver at Longclaw, whose history is fascinating. A juvenile on the flat for Gordon Elliott, he ran third in a minor Stakes race at Keeneland, USA, worth a quarter of a million quid in August 2019. After one further run in the States, for Brad Cox, he shipped back to Elliott where he signed off his flat career with a six length maiden verdict. A few weeks later he recorded the first of back to back hurdle successes before a slightly disappointing effort in a Listed hurdle at Wetherby. That was in late October and he's not been seen since, now running for the John McConnell yard.

Interesting back story and some class make 33/1 worth that cheeky fiver for all that the French-bred's will probably run amok.

Suggestion: Ask Mr Felt Tippy.

*

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

The closing line of the opening stanza of this year's Cheltenham Festival belongs to the National Hunt Chase. Two years ago, the race made headlines for all the wrong reasons; as a result of that, some sensible changes were introduced, most notably a reduction in distance by a quarter mile. This year, because of the pandemic, there will be no amateur riders either. A welcome relief in some cases, though most of those getting the leg up in recent years have been somewhere between competent and excellent horsemen and women.

The Gold Cup-bound Royale Pagaille had added some interest to the five-day entries but his absence leaves the door ajar for Galvin et al. Galvin, heretofore trained by Elliott, has moved to Ian Ferguson. "Who?", you might ask. Ferguson has trained a Festival winner for Galvin's owner, Ronnie Bartlett, Zemsky first past the post in the 2011 Foxhunters'. And, apparently, he also did the pre-training for this chap. Let's talk about Galvin's form.

A very good novice he was a regular visitor to Britain during his bumper and early novice hurdle days, before getting a chase mark by being beaten three times in Irish novice races. The handbrake was off in the final running of the Novices' Handicap Chase - gone but not forgotten, making way this year for the inaugural Mares' Chase - but he couldn't catch Imperial Aura up the hill. A non-winner in his first season over fences, then, he's since won four on the bounce, all in small fields at trips between two and a half and three miles, all on decent ground. The last of them was at Cheltenham in October, 144 days ago; so, while dodging the worst of the ground is understandable for one who likes it 'on top', fitness must be taken on trust. A positive to that end is that he'd been off for 105 days prior to the silver medal in the novices' handicap chase a year ago.

Next Destination, representing Paul Nicholls, was expected to line up in the RSA - sorry, Brown Advisory - but, wisely swerving Monkfish, lands in here. Galvin backers thrilled at the absence of Royale Pagaille will have been less pleased at the presence of this fellow. He's a nine-year-old, which is more a plus than a minus on recent evidence: two of the last three winners were aged ten, with Midnight Legend in 2014 aged nine. That's from a far smaller representation of runners than the younger age brackets.

Good enough to win a couple of Grade 1's for Willie Mullins in 2018, he switched to Nicholls after a protracted layoff and his new trainer has conditioned him to win consecutive Grade 2 novice events. The balance of his form is better than Galvin's and yet he is twice the price.

Another whose expected Festival target was different from his actual slot is Escaria Ten, hitherto presumed for a handicap. A progressive type he's yet to test his mettle in official Graded class but has run in beginners' and novice chases against established Grade 1 horses like Monkfish and Eklat De Rire. He has to show both that he can win in Graded class and that he handles quicker turf, and that combination is enough for me to think he's not excitingly priced.

Similarly, all of Lord Royal's Irish form to date is on very soft ground; but the Willie Mullins inmate did finish second in a mile and a half maiden on good ground on his sole flat run in France. He was a talking horse after putting up a  massive effort on time figures at Clonmel in January last year, and was threatening to do the same when coming down late in his chase debut at Thurles. He was well enough beaten next time over a shorter trip but, upped to three miles last time, kept on best and just failed to reel in the leader. This longer trip looks sure to suit and, if his jumping holds together, he's a player.

David Pipe has a few live ones this Festival, and Remastered could be one of them. Unbeaten in three chases, most recently the three mile Reynoldstown, a Grade 2, he has performed almost exclusively in soft and heavy turf. While it may not be a prerequisite it remains hard to peg his ability on faster terrain given he's now had 16 races. He probably doesn't have the upside that some of these do for all that he'd not be a shock winner.

Snow Leopardess usually runs well, but usually in defeat and, in spite of her seven pound allowance, she is not for me. The rest look to have plenty on their plates.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

This should be run at an even to strong tempo, probably more even than strong, with Remastered and Lord Royal expected to be front rank. The Malcolm Denmark pair of Next Destination and Soldier Of Love may be close up along with Snow Leopardess. Galvin and Escaria Ten are typically waited with a little more.

National Hunt Chase Selection

Galvin looks to have a fair chance but the combination of his price, a five month layoff and a lack of Graded form put me off. Next Destination on the other hand has a run this year, strong Graded form and a nice profile - and he's double the odds of Galvin. He looks a bet.

Suggestion: Back Next Destination to win or each way if you prefer, at 4/1. Hills will refund up to £10 stake in cash if your pick finishes second (3/1+) so if you fear Galvin, or another, that might be worth considering.

*

A fascinating first day, light on numbers but not at all in terms of interest or class. It gets trickier as the week progresses and personally I'll have a fair idea of my four-day fate at the end of the first quarter.

Good luck!

Matt



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Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

Cheltenham Festival 2020: Day One Preview, Tips

It's been wet wet wet and, apart from the state of the turf, the ongoing coronavirus saga had rendered day one an on/off 'sweet little mystery' in its own right for a while but, at this stage at least, it looks as though we're a go on ground expected to be testing.

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

Show time! The legendary roar is a real thing and unlike any other exhortation in the sport: it's a cocktail of excitement, anticipation and primal release from 361 (362 this year) days of waiting. And it's felt just as keenly - maybe more so - by the jockeys riding in the Supreme, some of whom can be guilty of going a shade too hard a shade too early.

The top of the market sees two horses split by the Irish Sea but united in ownership: both Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge belong to Joe Donnelly (as too does Gold Cup favourite, Al Boum Photo - lucky guy). What is perhaps strange is that the horse with much the better proven level of form has been the bigger priced of the pair throughout the ante post lead up.

Trained by Willie Mullins, winner of the Supreme five times since 2007 - four of them since 2013 - Asterion Forlonge was a clear-cut victor in the Grade 1 Chanelle Pharma Novices' Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. There he was ten lengths too good for the 5/4 favourite, Easywork, a victory which took his record to three from three over hurdles. Add to that a maiden point win and the six-year-old son of Coastal Path is unbeaten in four.

As evidenced by Jon Shenton in this excellent piece, the Chanelle Pharma (formerly Deloitte) is the strongest novice hurdle run either side of the Irish Sea prior to the Festival, with Champagne Fever, Vautour and Klassical Dream all winning there en route to winning here, and all for Asterion's trainer. He should be favourite in my book and, by the time the tapes rise, he very well might be. His run style is from the front and he'll surely make a bold bid.

Currently favoured, however, is the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin, winner of the Listed Sidney Banks Hurdle at Huntingdon last time out. Shishkin's form has not worked out especially well, for all that he's been visually highly impressive. Specifically, in the Kempton bumper he won last March, his rivals have collectively run 22 times since without winning; from the Newbury novice in which he fell, his 19 rivals have run 29 times between them without winning; and in the Newbury novice that he won, his 13 rivals have failed to even make the frame from eight collective subsequent starts. Ouch.

In Shishkin's defence, he bolted up from some 140-ish rivals in the Sidney Banks; and Shakem Up'Arry, his closest rival at Newbury, was well fancied for the Imperial Cup before that race's abandonment.

The best British form is arguably brought to the table by the Colin Tizzard-trained Fiddlerontheroof. Bought from Ireland for £200,000, he took a little time to get going before running out a convincing winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time. Notably, his form on soft or wetter reads 3111 and includes a defeat of the very well-regarded The Big Getaway while still trained in Ireland. Fiddlerontheroof is sure to relish a battle and stamina may be his strong suit; as such conditions set up perfectly, especially if he can control things from the front as he often likes to do.

If such a thing exists, the forgotten horse in the Supreme could be Abacadabras - easy for me to spell (see what I did there?!). A rock solid National Hunt Flat horse who was fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Cheltenham Festival, he was a close up second to Envoi Allen in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle and followed up with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices' Hurdle. Both those runs were in December, however, and Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown inmate has not been sighted in a race since.

That 74 day layoff is a worry, though Altior was off 80 days before winning in 2016 and Summerville Boy had 66 days between runs in 2018. Back in 2008, the mega-trendsbuster, Captain Cee Bee, was off 115 days prior to his Supreme victory, so it's far from a terminal knock.

Though he also runs Elixir d'Ainay, JP McManus's opening race hopes look to lie with Chantry House, unbeaten in four since tipping up on his point debut. Since then he's won his maiden point, then scored for the first time under Rules in a bumper exactly a year ago, and has added two ungraded novice hurdles to his CV. Each of his wins under Rules has been recorded as an odds-on favourite, testament to the regard in which he is held. He retains plenty of upside but it would represent a significant step forward were he to stride past this field.

If you want a wise guy horse - and who doesn't want a wise guy horse? - look no further than Edwardstone. Only a close second in the Grade 2 Rossington Main on Haydock's uniquely soupy surface, he'd previously won a couple of novice hurdles by narrow margins. Ostensibly not much to write home about in the context of a race like the Supreme. But... closer inspection reveals that in the first of them he beat the subsequent Grade 1 winner, Fiddlerontheroof, and in the second he beat subsequent Grade 2 scorer, Harry Senior. That pair are both single figure odds for Cheltenham novice hurdles and yet this chap can be backed at 20/1. It's simply too big about a horse who also has bumper form putting him very close to Chantry House, and who has yet to finish outside the first two in six career starts.

Supreme Novices' Pace Projection

Fiddlerontheroof has been on the front in three of his last four starts, though not when winning the Tolworth. That gives him a touch of versatility and it might be that he takes a lead off Asterion Forlonge, who has won from on or near the pace the last twice. More likely Elixir d'Ainay, Chantry House's owner mate and Asterion Forlonge's stable mate, will be at the head of affairs. Expect Shishkin to also be prominent though behind the front rank and Chantry House to be mid-division in the early furlongs.

Supreme Novices' Hurdle Selection

This looks a seriously good renewal of the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser, and all of Asterion Forlonge, Fiddlerontheroof, Abacadabras and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shishkin and Chantry House are perfectly credible winners. As such it's probably not a betting race at the current prices.

But there will be bookmaker specials galore on this opening heat of the meeting, meaning shopping around will garner significant value.

I think Asterion Forlonge is the most likely winner; I suspect Fiddlerontheroof will be the main beneficiary if it becomes a slog; but the one who is still the wrong price - for all that he's probably only the sixth or seventh most likely winner - is Edwardstone. His form ties in closely with a couple priced at a quarter of his odds.

Suggestion: Shop around for the best deals. Consider a small each way bet on Edwardstone at 16/1 with William Hill (1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6-7).

*

2.10 Arkle Challenge Chase (Grade 1, 2m)

A first sight of the chase fences as the two mile novices have at it in the Arkle. This looks like being quick, placing an emphasis on both stamina and accurate jumping at speed in the early part of the contest.

The uneasy favourite is Gigginstown's Notebook, trained by Henry de Bromhead. On form he looks to have an outstanding chance: his four chase runs have yielded four wins, the last pair in Grade 1 company. But... that probably leaves him with less scope to improve than some of his rivals for all that they still have to catch him up.

There are a number of causes for concern with this lad in spite of his G1 brace. First, his temperament: he bolted on the way to the start last time, antics which saw him prevail only by 3/4L from the re-opposing Cash Back. Whilst it could be argued he would have won by further if not for getting stressy, the counter-argument is that the cauldron of the Cheltenham parade ring is hardly likely to becalm a buzzy beast.

Secondly, there is the matter of his performance at the Festival last year. Granted, he was a 50/1 shot on the day, but a 51 length last of twelve finishers is hardly the sort of course form about which to get excited. He's clearly a different horse for fences, but those are two big negatives against a Festival favourite.

So what of Cash Back? He's eight years old, the same as that top class pair Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe were when winning their Arkles. He was a decent but not top class hurdler, a comment that applies similarly to Notebook, so, while he has definitely improved a bundle there just might be a classier horse in the field. That said, I do think he'll see out the trip better than many and had backed him for small money after his Naas demolition job in January.

Fakir D'Oudairies is a five year old, the same age as four winners between 1998 and 2006, but none since. It used to be the case during those years that the additional maturity of the ex-French horses was a big plus, especially when allied to a healthy weight for age allowance. But the allowance was removed in 2009, and just four five-year-olds have appeared in this race since. They included 11/4 shot Saint Calvados, who was beaten by desperate tactics as much as anything else in 2018, and Tatenen, who fell as favourite in 2009.

Fakir has been beaten a length and a half by Notebook, meaning there is little theoretically between them. However, when one considers that there is still a weight for age allowance in such races in Ireland, and that Fakir was in receipt of seven pounds that day but runs off level weights here, it is quite hard to countenance a form reversal, for all that Notebook may burn some of his fuel before the race starts.

Fourth in the Ballymore and second in an Aintree G1 hurdle, both last spring, was Brewin'upastorm. This season, Olly Murphy's seven-year-old has cosily claimed two small field provincial novice chases, form which has worked out quite well without matching the other single-figure priced horses in the field. Olly's ability to get one ready for the Festival was shown last year when this horse finished a place behind the same trainer's Itchy Feet.

21 lengths behind Brewin'upastorm at Carlisle was Global Citizen. His trainer, Ben Pauling, was in lamentable form at the time (just two winners and four places from 55 runners between the end of June and early December), as well as which that was the horse's first run over fences and first run for 226 days. Nevertheless, as the highest rated hurdler in the Arkle, it was a disappointing seasonal bow.

Fast forward two months to Kempton at Christmas, and the real Global Citizen rocked up in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad to turn away Rouge Vif et al and re-establish his credentials for this gig. He's got the ability, clearly, but there are two reservations: first is that he might prefer flatter tracks, his only race at Cheltenham being when last of seven finishers - 45 lengths behind the sixth horse - in last year's Champion Hurdle; and second, he seems to want to bowl along in front. Here, so too does Cash Back, and potentially any of Fakir D'Oudairies, Put The Kettle On and Maire Banrigh. It could be pretty warm on the front end!

A Grade 1 winner at Sandown last time out, Esprit Du Large deserves a mention. The problem is that he's not been seen since that Henry VIII win in early December, 94 days being a longer absence to overcome than any winner this century.

The lovely mare Maire Banrigh has won her last six races since having wind surgery in early 2018, the most recent of which was an uncompetitive Listed Mares' Chase in which she was sent off 1-4 favourite. Her form isn't a million miles behind the best of these and she is able to receive a valuable seven pounds allowance. That said, she'll only be the third mare to run in the race in recent times, following I'm Delilah (unplaced in 2010) and Kruguyrova (2nd in 2008).

There are bits and pieces of cases to be made for the likes of the Kingmaker winner, Rouge Vif, but the one which makes a modicum of appeal in the long grass is Al Dancer. Winner of the Betfair Hurdle just over a year ago, he won a course and distance novice chase on his first start this campaign. He was caught for toe next time in the Grade 2 Arkle Trial behind Put The Kettle On, who had had plenty of practice by that point.

He's since run a little flatter at Kempton and Doncaster but comes here with the benefit of a good amount of experience, winning track form, and the prospect of a more truly run race suiting better. He could easily bomb out but at 20/1 or so he's playable for small money in what looks a very open race.

Arkle Pace Projection

Plenty of speed on based on recent form. Any/all of Global Citizen, Cash Back, and perhaps Fakir D'Oudairies, Maire Banrigh and Put The Kettle On might vie for the early lead. It'll take some getting with jumping over the first few fences likely to be closely examined.

Arkle Chase Selection

Notebook is in danger of becoming a backable price such is the concern over his pre-race temperament. Were he to handle preliminaries reasonably well he might be worth a saver, but this is a race in which I don't have a strong opinion. Perhaps Brewin'upastorm - presumed far back from the heat of early battle - can pass them all. He's got stamina and no little class. At bigger prices, Al Dancer may outrun 20/1 odds.

Suggestion: Have a look at Brewin'upastorm (6/1 Betfred) and maybe Al Dancer each way at 20's.

*

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

The first handicap of the week and we're into wild guess territory. A few general patterns might reduce the field a touch. It's usually a race for the British, with Ireland not scoring since Tony Martin's Dun Doire in 2006. They don't have a lot of runners in truth. Seven- to ten-years-old and a top six finish eliminate a few runners but we're still left with most of the field.

One of very mild interest at a fair price is the Dan Skelton-trained Cobra De Mai. He was given a 'never in it' ride in the Skybet Chase at Doncaster last time under a seven pound claimer. Harry Skelton gets back on for the first time this season, having won a course and distance handicap chase off this mark last April. There is a slight concern about the ground and about Cobra's jumping, but there are no such reservations that this has been the plan.

Towards the front of the market, a more obvious one is The Conditional. A non-stayer over 3m5f last time when dropping to fourth in the final quarter mile, the half mile less range will work better. His win over course and distance on soft ground in October has been well advertised since, and he's attractively weighted to go well here.

I'll not pretend I have a strong handle on the form here, so let's move on.

Ultima Pace Projection

Bags of pace on again here, most likely from Activial and Cogry; but any of Vinndication, Cepage, Elwood and Mulcahys Hill could help to force it.

Ultima Handicap Chase Selection

Suggestion: I'll have a wild guess at Cobra De Mai (20/1 Ladbrokes 1/5 5 places) and The Conditional (9/1 bet365, Hills).

*

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

I previewed this race on 14th February here - Champion Hurdle preview. Nothing much has changed in the interim except that I think it's an even more imponderable puzzle than I did then!

There are not many who cannot win, but there are not many about whom you'd have no reservations: it's a race in which to take a swing at a price and it won't surprise me if the bookmakers offer 5/1 the field on Tuesday morning.

Champion Hurdle Pace Projection

A solid gallop looks a certainty here, with neither Cornerstone Lad nor Petit Mouchoir having a Plan B. Not So Sleepy is another whose metier is to push on from the get go, notwithstanding that he missed the kick last time. Ballyandy and Coeur Sublime are another pair who tend to be on or close to the front while, at the other end of the field, the likes of Supersundae and Silver Streak are expected to be played late.

Champion Hurdle Selection

A wide open Champion Hurdle and your guess is as good as - quite possibly better than - mine. I tipped and backed Supasundae in mid-February and am happy enough to let him run for me. Both Darver Star and Ballyandy should offer a run for small money, though the price has gone somewhat on Darver now.

Suggestion: Back what you like. I'm hoping Supasundae, who is both old and slow in the context of a Champion Hurdle - but perhaps not in the context of this Champion Hurdle - can make the frame at around 12/1.

*

4.10 Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m4f)

This looks a match between Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle.

Benie Des Dieux was in the process of running away with the race when coming down at the last and handing it to Roksana a year ago. The Willie Mullins-trained mare is otherwise unbeaten in Britain and Ireland from seven completed starts since December 2016, to which she added the French Champion Hurdle last May. She's fairly lightly raced, then, perhaps attesting to a fragility; though Mullins famously minded Quevega in similar fashion and managed to conjure an astonishing six Mares' Hurdles from her. Her name now exists in perpetuity at Cheltenham with a bar named in her honour!

Benie is nine already so no such opportunity to rack up a sequence exists for her, though she would have been bidding for a hat-trick but for that last flight capsize a year ago. She's won her three starts since and comes here with rock solid credentials.

There is, however, a viable alternative in the form of Honeysuckle, herself unbeaten in seven Rules starts and a point to point. She looked a little workwomanlike when repelling Darver Star et al by just half a length at the Dublin Racing Festival, but that was over two miles. The shortest winning margins in her career have come at the minimum, while at two-and-a-half miles-plus no rival has got within 5 1/2 lengths of her.

Her ratings are closely aligned with Benie Des Dieux and, as a six-year-old, she has the greater scope to improve. Of course, Benie just keeps winning so we don't really know how good she is.

Stormy Ireland will probably force the pace, along with Honeysuckle's owner mate Elfile, meaning it will be a solid test. Stormy was good enough to claim silver behind Roksana last year and, if she gets an easy, she might cling on for a place, but it is hard to see her troubling the top pair if Elfile take her on as expected.

So what of Roksana? Dan Skelton's mare is a hard knocking type who has been a fantastic servant to connections, finishing in the first three in eleven of twelve hurdles starts. As well as winning last year's Mares' Hurdle, she has finished second to Santini in the 2018 G1 Sefton at Aintree, second in the Aintree Stayers' Hurdle, also a Grade 1, and, most recently, second in the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle over course and distance. If they were betting on third place in this, she'd be about even money in my book.

The rest are not good enough.

Mares' Hurdle Pace Projection

Elfile and Stormy Ireland are confirmed front-runners, the former looking a potential spoiler working for Honeysuckle. and it is unlikely either will give the other any peace. As such, it is probable that they'll set the race up for those in behind. Honeysuckle tends to race prominently and will get a lovely tow into proceedings, while Benie Des Dieux will not be far behind in this short field if adopting her usual mid-division tactics.

Mares' Hurdle Selection

There are two very good mares in here, one pretty good mare, and some other less good ones. The two very good ones - Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle - should finish first and second, though I wouldn't be bullish about the order; and Roksana should finish third.

Suggestion: Play 65/35 forecasts and tricasts: 65% BdD-Honey-Roksana, 35% Honey-BdD-Roksana.

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

Not my strong suit, but the trends are starting to form after 15 renewals, even allowing for some minor tinkering with the conditions.

Twelve of the fifteen winners finished 1st or 2nd last time out; 8yo+ have a moderate record; the top five in the market have won all bar three; all 15 winners ran between two weeks and two months prior to this; all bar one of the last twelve winners had run three or four times over fences.

The two box-tickers are Imperial Aura and Hold The Note.

Imperial Aura has finished second at Cheltenham on his last two of three chase starts, the form of his most recent run working out well enough. That was in the novices' handicap chase on Trials Day in January, a race which has provided the winner of this three times to date.

Mick Channon, he of the windmill arm goal celebration in a distant former life, saddled the winner of this two years ago with Mister Whitaker, and he trains Hold The Note for the same owner, Tim Radford, he of Timico Gold Cup fame in a recent former life.

This fellow has had a different prep - Mister Whitaker actually winning the aforementioned Trials Day novices handicap chase en route to his triumph - but has solid form in spite of being a maiden over fences. Maiden status failed to stop Ballyalton, Irish Cavalier or Finger Onthe Pulse from scoring.

Hold The Note was just run out of it in a three mile Grade 2 last time meaning he has both the class and the stamina for this; whether he quite has the speed remains to be seen, but connections obviously know how to get the job done.

One I like, as much as you can like a horse in a field of twenty novice handicappers, is Fergal O'Brien's Paint The Dream. He finished last of five last time out, but that was over a completely inadequate two miles on a not nearly testing enough track, Ludlow. Prior to that he'd chased home Midnight Shadow in the Grade 2 Dipper Novices' Chase, finishing from some way back to get to within a long length of the winner. He looks sure to appreciate the increased emphasis on stamina IF his jumping holds up.

17 others with some sort of a chance!

Novices' Handicap Chase Pace Projection

Torpillo will be front rank, and so too most likely Precious Cargo, Champagne Court, De Plotting Shed and, if he's quick enough, Paint The Dream. The speed they go early is likely to place strong emphasis on the jumping of these inexperienced chasers.

Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase selection

I fully respect the chances of the two 'trendy' horses, Hold The Note and Imperial Aura, but I want to take a small chance at a big price. In that spirit, I'm swinging at the maiden chaser, Paint The Dream.

Suggestion: Have a small bit each way on Paint The Dream at 25/1 1/5 1-2-3-4-5-6 Skybet.

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

An amended race distance and qualifying criteria for this year's National Hunt Chase after the attrition of the 2019 renewal. Just 3m6f this time around then, though that is unlikely to make it much less of a gruelling stamina test. Add in the fact this race is contested by novice chasers ridden by amateur riders and you have a precarious punting proposition.

A little surprising, then, perhaps, is that the favourite, Carefully Selected, is as short as 6/4. If his price is surprising - to me at least - his position in the market is not. He was a high class bumper horse, finishing a neck second to Relegate in the 2018 Champion Bumper; and a high class novice hurdler, finishing third to Minella Indo in the Grade 1 Punchestown staying novice hurdle last spring.

This season Carefully Selected is three from three over fences, most recently in a pair of Grade 3's over two and a half, and then three, miles. He ought to stay though this is a three-quarter mile journey into the unknown for him.

A massed rank in opposition as ever in a race where the smallest field this century has been 15. Ravenhill is an interesting one in spite of a fall last time. He's the same age, ten, as Rathvinden, winner in 2018, and Rith Dubh (2002), his age group having an 11% win and 22% place strike rate. Compare that with seven- and eight-year-olds, who have won 15 NH Chases since 1997 but from a whopping 290 runners (5% win, 14% place).

His form lacks the Graded lustre of Carefully Selected's but it has the unarguable substance of valuable handicap performance, most notably when second in the €118,000 to the winner Kerry National two back. He was travelling kindly in midfield when falling halfway through the Troytown Chase when last seen 107 days ago and, while both the absence and the tumble are concerns, he's just the sort of warrior for this job.

Willie Mullins (Carefully Selected) and Gordon Elliott (Ravenhill) have won four of the last seven NH Chases.

Eight of the last nine winners were rated 143 or higher, and that eliminates most of this field. One who passes that test and might be the pick of the home defence is Lord Du Mesnil. Acquired from France where he had solid handicap chase form, in the summer of 2018, he's improved 38 pounds this season so far. That improvement has coincided with deeper ground as can be seen from his form below, sorted by Racing Post Rating. Note the going for his better performances - soft and heavy - and for his least good efforts - faster turf. He will obviously enjoy things if it comes up very wet.

Another worthy of mention is Kim Bailey's progressive Newtide. Newtide has raced exclusively on soft ground and has won his last three, most recently the Grade 2 Towton Novices' Chase at Wetherby. With just seven races on the clock there's sure to be more improvement to come and a light campaign should see him fresher than many in the field.

Possibly the most progressive in the field is the Tom George-trained Springfield Fox. Beaten in three early season novice hurdles, the Fox was given an opening handicap mark of 117, from which he proceeded to bolt up by 12 lengths in a heavy ground three mile Chepstow novices' handicap chase. Reassessed to a ten pounds higher mark for his next and most recent assignment, he laughed at the handicapper's futile attempt to check his new found winning ways as he sluiced home by 17 lengths in a three mile Exeter novices' handicap chase.

He's up another 15 to 142 now, but that's clearly just a guess on the part of the handicapper: it is far from impossible that he steps forward another ten pounds from that mark - and if he did so he'd just about win this. The niggle with him is that he's gone from the front and, again, that might not be ideal with a number of other pace protagonists in opposition.

National Hunt Chase Pace Projection

The likes of Springfield Fox, who took a liberty at the first fence last time, and Carefully Selected are confirmed front runners. Lord Du Mesnil and Lamanver Pippin race close up, too. They could be sorted out with still three miles to go!

National Hunt Chase Selection

It's an open looking race, though the favourite's credentials are solid. Sadly, his price is terrible for a contest of this nature and I have to let him beat me if he can. Against him, I respect Ravenhill and Lord Du Mesnil, but the one I want to be with is Springfield Fox. If he can get into a nice rhythm over the first few fences then he looks as though he'll just keep rolling. He's highly progressive and is a tempting price.

Suggestion: Back Springfield Fox at 8/1 e/w bet365, Skybet, 888sport

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Good luck with your first day wagers. Remember, very few people have their last bet of the week on Tuesday, so whether you're in front or behind by 6pm, there's still a lot of pushing and pulling to be done over the remaining three days.

Matt



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