The waiting is finally over, the 2016 Cheltenham Festival is upon us, and not a moment too soon. Can you believe it’s been 12 months since the last time we did this? 12 months since Coneygree did the job in the Gold Cup and put his name into the history books. And what a build up we’ve had. The big stories coming into this year’s Cheltenham Festival have revolved around the Champion Hurdle, with short-priced antepost favourite Faugheen being ruled out a month ago, and then Arctic Fire, who replaced Fagheen at the head of the market was ruled out not long after. Then we had the ‘will she, won’t she?’ saga of Annie Power being supplemented for the race. And she is, which is great news for fans of the mare.
But the great news is that while the drama off the course has more or less finished (touch wood), we get the drama on the course to keep us wanting more. And what a first day of racing we have from the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. Now, if you’re in the UK, the day will kick off for you at 8am with your morning coffee and some toast and The Morning Line on Channel Four. If you’ve slept in, don’t worry, you won’t have missed much, but God, I love watching it just to get me into the mood for the day’s racing. It’s a great tradition, and hopefully ITV keep it going with next year’s coverage of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival. After that, the first race of the day is at 1:30, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, followed by the Arkle at 2:10, the Ultimate Chase at 2:50, and then the feature race of the day, the Champion Hurdle. The Mares’ Hurdle goes to post at 4:10, then the National Hunt Chase for amateur riders at 4:50, and the final race of the day is the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.
And now we’ve got to the Cheltenham Festival in one piece, I’ll just mention our favourite bookie in the Sports Betting Tips offices, who are running the same fantastic promotions that they run every Saturday for Channel Four Racing. Yes, over at Bet365, they will give you the best price on every horse race shown live on Channel Four if you back it from 10am on the day of the race. That means you should wait until 10am Saturday and get the best price, as they will match their competitors. What could be better than best prices? Well, if you back a winner at 4/1 or more at Bet365 on any of the Channel Four races, you get a free bet that matches your stake on the winner for the next Channel Four race.
So, first race of the day, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and it’s the potential stars for the coming few years, and maybe another contender for the Champion Hurdle next year. 2 miles is the trip, and we have 14 declared for the race.
Looking at the trends, we’re needing to look for a runner that won last time out, and that won in the last 68 days, although preference for a run in the last month and a half. We’re going to be getting a frantic pace, and it tends to suit horses that race up with the pace, rather than those sitting off. So where does that leave us?
Well, Bellshill was all the rage until last time out. Willie Mullins’ charge should have remained undefeated over hurdles, but last time out at Leopardstown, things didn’t go to plan. Was it the ground? No, probably not. I’ve been impressed by Bellshill this season, but the trends are against him purely do to his run last time out. He might also prefer longer over time, and this will be plenty sharp enough for him.
Min is going to be all the rage, with Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins looking to get their festival off to a great start. He’ll be up with the pace, which will help, but I get the feeling that he’s not been tested, and he might appreciate a longer trip and tackier ground than he’s going to get here.
Instead, we’re going for Nicky Henderson’s runner, Buveur D’Air. His debut win by 11 lengths over Wait For Me has worked out well, and this trip will be right up his street. He last ran 46 days ago, which ticks the trend boxes, too. He was also a handy bumper runner, so bringing that class he showed last year to this race is going to be a huge help.
The second race of the day, we’ve got the top novice chasers going to post in the Arkle, over 2 miles. It’s going to be a big pointer next year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase, and to be honest, there’s only one runner that anyone has been talking about for the past 12 months, and that’s Douvan. Yes, it’s not a surprising selection, but he’s got at least 6lbs on the nearest rated horse, The Game Changer, on the ratings. He did the business in the Supreme Novice last year, and has never been troubled over fences in his novice chases. Is it an unoriginal selection? Sure it is. But then you know what, the rest of the field have their chances of getting into the places, and it’s a crap shoot.
The Game Chance has improved for every run he’s had, and will go on to win his fair share of races, but beating Sizing Platinum by a few lengths at Punchestown doesn’t look anywhere good enough to get a sniff at Douvan going up the hill. As he’s the closest to Douvan on ratings, it juts seems to make the 2016 renewal of the Arkle a cakewalk and barring any disasters it should be win number nine for Douvan, cementing his place as a real star of the coming few years.
The first real bookies’ benefit of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival, the Ultima Handicap Chase, will go to post at 2:50, and it’s a hideous race to try and work out, with 24 runners going to post.
Un Temps Pour Tout looks on a good mark after his first venture into handicap chases last time out at Cheltenham. He went well enough in last year’s World Hurdle, without trouble Cole Harden, and has had a couple of decent runs over fences in his three novice chases. However, in a race like this, we’re looking for a possible handicap blot, and I think the handicapper has him about right.
There’s going to be a lot of attention on Out Sam who is looking for a third win on the bounce. His win over Milansbar at Newbury last time out looks exceptional, with the runner-up going on to claim a comfortable win next time out at Exeter. It’s Out Sam’s handicap debut, and he could be a few pounds well in if that form with Milansbar is anything to go by. But he’s only run in tiny fields in his three chases, and with 23 other runners, he might just not find it as easy going to get it all his own way.
Instead, Morning Assembly could be a real threat if returning to the kind of form he showed at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival in the RSA Chase, and he’s gone well in his two races this year without getting his head in front. He has a win over Don Cossack on his record, and on his handicap chase debut, this could be a very lenient mark for a horse that has some really great form in his book both over fences and hurdles.
3:20 Cheltenham – CHAMPION HURDLE
The feature race of the day, the Champion Hurdle for the finest 2 mile hurdlers in the world, with the exception of Faugheen and Arctic Fire.
There’s a lot of last year’s Triumph Hurdle field lining up, with the winner, Peace and Co leading the charge. However, the form of the 2015 Triumph Hurdle just hasn’t been working out, and I think there’s a lot the likes of Hargam, and Top Notch have to prove.
Lil Rockerfeller is coming into this in good form, and will is a definite value bet for those that prefer the bigger prices.
My Tent Or Yours, runner up in this race two years ago, would appeal if it wasn’t for 703 days off the track. At full fitness, you would be all over Barry Geraghty to be there or there abouts come the finish, but it’s too big a risk to take.
The New One is going to appeal to a lot of bettors, but he’s come up short in his two attempts previously, and he’s not getting any younger. He seems to be me be a bit of a flat-track bully when it comes to the tougher races, a bit like Harchibald in that respect, and doesn’t enjoy the Cheltenham Hill as much as some.
Again, it’s not a novel selection, but Annie Power is just a superstar, and she seems like she can handle all trips. She’s won over the minimum trip, she’s finished second in a hot World Hurdle in 2014, and barring her hiccup at the last hurdle in the 2015 Mares’ Hurdle, he record is unbelievable. Her allowance is going to be a huge help here, too, with 7lbs off her back.
With Annie Power taking her place in the Champion Hurdle, the Mares’ Hurdle is looking like a bit of an open affair.
Vroum Vroum Mag sets the standard here, with an impeccable record over fences supplementing her handy form over the smaller obstacles. Her win last time out at Ascot impressed, but the form hasn’t work out to be too spectacular, and considering she’s going to go off at what could be a prohibitive price, in what looks like an open race, we’ll look elsewhere, especially as she hasn’t had a run at Cheltenham before.
Polly Peachum and Bitofapuzzle, second and third respectively in this race last year, come into this in differing form. Polly Peachum has looked decent enough over hurdles without really dominating, while Bitofapuzzle started well over fences, then seemed to lose her way. Last year’s race was a bit of a mess with Annie Power going down, so I wouldn’t be looking too much into it.
Instead, Legacy Gold each-way appeals. She was off the track for almost two years before finishing a 6.5 length runner-up to Anne Power last time out. While not sparkling form, she has three wins out of five over hurdles, and might just be a bit of value at a huge price.
The National Hunt Chase Challenge Cup for amateur riders is next up, and it’s another tricky race to get to the bottom of. 20 runners to take our chances from, and we have some really smart chasers lining up, too.
Definitly Red has come up against a couple of smart ones in Blaklion and Black Hercules. However, he didn’t seem to cope with Cheltenham last year, and while he’s a likeable sort, there are more that appeal.
Local Show and Measureofmydreams come into this race in good form, but the form lines from their wins don’t work out exceptionally well.
Ponte Alexandre is the one that really stands out, and who seems to have taken to fences well. He was a bit unlucky last time out, with a couple of poor leaps causing him to drop to third in the Group 1 Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown. His third in the 2013 Neptune Investment Hurdle behind The New One is great form, albeit a bit old, but it shows he can cope with the undulations of Cheltenham. Plus, it’s a Mullins and Mullins partnership, so what’s not to love? He’s one of the top rated horses in the race, he’s run in top class company, and this is a bit of a step down, even if it’s a hot race. For a Willie Mullins runner at the Cheltenham Festival, he should go off a fair price.
Last race of the day, a novice chase with 20 runners declared. Yeah, not the easiest way to finish the day, is it? So we’re going to turn back to the stats to try and narrow this field down a bit. A top two finish last time out is a prerequisite, but being beaten in their first two chase starts is also, weirdly, a plus.
Bridgets Pet does tick the boxes, but he’s had a tough campaign, and although Shane Shortall takes 5lbs off, it’s not a great mark.
Willow’s Saviour also ticks some of the right boxes, but last time he ran at Cheltenham, he was pulled up, which doesn’t bode well.
But we’ll take a chance on Five In A Row right at the bottom of the handicap. He’s won the last two, and the form of his win over Samtegal at Musselburgh two races ago has worked out well, with Samtegal winning a Group 3 last weekend at Newbury. He lost his first chase a year ago, took some time over hurdles, which seemed to reform him. He’ll be a fancy price, and should give us a good run in the last race of the day.