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Day two of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival starts today, and although we had some big names missing yesterday, we still got some great racing. The Champion Hurdle turned into a procession, and it’s hard to read into the race too much, as My Tent or Yours finishing second sums up that the race really lacked depth. While the winner, Buveur D’Air, looked handy, the rest of the field just looked like a bunch of average hurdlers. Finish of the day came in the Mares’ Hurdle, with the three at the head of the market, Limini, Vroum Vroum Mag and Apple’s Jade all contesting in the finish, with Apple’s Jade just coming out on top. Safe to say that any of the three would have been near the head of the market in the Champion Hurdle and connections of Limini/Vroum Vroum Mag might just be regretting not sending one to take on the big boys.
Again, the racing starts at 1:30, and coverage starts in the UK on ITV1 at 1:00. I was impressed by ITV’s coverage of the Cheltenham Festival yesterday, and it’s good to see some familiar faces of festivals past, as well as the brilliant Brough Scott on our screens this week. For fans of racing who don’t watch it week in, week out on ITV, seeing those faces mixed with the ‘newer’ ITV presenters gives the Festival that traditional feel. Today, the feature race is the Queen Mother Champion Chase, one of my favourite races of the year, thanks to a certain Moscow Flyer, but we’ve also got the Neptune Hurdle, the RSA Chase, the Coral Cup, the Cross-Country Chase, the Fred Winter Hurdle and finally the Champion Bumper to take in today, so it’s another great day, if a tricky one, of racing.
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We start today’s action with the Neptune Hurdle, and we have a hot favourite in the shape of Neon Wolf. Like Melon yesterday, there’s a lot of noise surrounding Neon Wolf, and Harry Fry’s star is two from two over hurdles, with his last win an impressive victory over Elgin at Haydock. However, Elgin failed to show up yesterday and although Neon Wolf won well, he’s not beaten too much in terms of class to be worthy of such a short price going into this, never mind the fact it’s a big step up in trip. The same can be said of second favourite Bacardys’ form, as Bunk Off Early disappointed yesterday, and although the step up in trip might suit, he was flat out over 2m2f last time out, so it’s hard to say. Add in that Willie Mullins’ horses have been found to be slightly wanting, and I wouldn’t be rushing to back Ruby Walsh’s mount.
Instead, I like the look of Ben Pauling’s Willoughby Court, who looks great value based on the form of his win at Warwick in a Group 2. He beat Gayebury by eight lengths, with a 4lbs disadvantage, and Gayebury recently won a hot handicap, so the form holds up nicely. We also know Willoughby Court will get the trip, which is a huge plus in the Neptune. That being said, I think it’s a wide open race, and although the talk is about Neon Wolf, he’s far too short for me in this one.
Next up is the RSA Chase, and this one is for the stayers. The bookies have Might Bite as the favourite, although the field is quite evenly matched on price alone. Might Bite’s form does hold up, even with the fall two races ago at Kempton, as the race was his until that final fence fall. However, this is a real step up in class, and I just wonder if his sketchy jumping might be put under even more pressure. Going left-handed is a plus, but I wouldn’t want to back him at a relatively short price against some classy stayers. Alpha Des Obeaux has questions about fitness, as although there is some great form in last year’s World Hurdle, last time out burst blood vessels ended his run at Leopoardstown, and if there are question marks, now isn’t the time for them to creep up. Plus, although he has some smart form in the book, he’s yet to taste success at the highest level over the bigger obstacles. Bellshill has found his level, I think, and Cheltenham might just not be his course.
Instead, my selection for the RSA is Whisper, who was a high-class hurdler and seems to have brought that form into his first two chases, winning a decent Group 2 at Cheltenham (in the Dipper) last time out, beating Clas Des Obeaux. Nicky Henderson is going great guns right now, and it would take a brave person to bet against his horses.
Another one of the big handicap races, the Coral Cup is a bit like a cavalry charge, and with 25 runners declared, it could be absolute carnage. Now, I’ll keep this simple – Tombstone is the selection here. Sure, we’ve missed the price, but I still think there’s value based on his form behind Buveur D’Air and beating the very classy Jezki. Gordon Elliott’s on form right now, and I see no reason why a horse that looks like he should be competing in better company than this can’t take this big prize. Peregrine Run is the obvious threat, and if Hargam can recreate some of that old form, he might be a threat from the bottom of the handicap, but I just think Tombstone has shown some real class coming into this, and I would advise getting on ASAP, as that price might just crash.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase. The feature race of the day. This goes to Douvan.
The Crosscountry Chase, the one race that purists hate, but viewers love. As a punter, it has been profitable in the past, but then it can also be a real minefield, depending on what Enda Bolger is up to. Cantlow heads the market after a course and distance win two races ago, then a second over the same course and distance at the end of January. It’s the classic Bolger/McManus combo, but the price just looks far too short in such a big field and a race where there could be a sleeper. Cause of Causes is also at the head of the market, and this time it’s Gordon Elliott for JP McManus. Cause of Causes disappointed over course and distance last time out, but did get round, which is the main thing, but it wasn’t hot form to be bringing to this meeting.
Usuel Smurfer is my pick for this, a little out of left field. He made an encouraging start to crosscountry races at Punchestown, losing out to Auvergnat, but giving weight to the winner. On level terms, Auvergnat is half the price and Usuel Smurfer is weighted to reverse that form. I think this year’s renewal is wide open and we should see a great race.
The Fred Winter is another one of those tough races to call, and it’s also a notorious placepot buster. We have 22 runners to sort out and most if not all are here in merit and are in with a chance. Percy Street looks good on flat form and on breeding, and at the bottom of the handicap, Nicky Henderson might just be able to pull out a big price winner here. However, it’s not the best hurdle form in the race, and there might be one of two with a bit more experience that are preferred. Domperignon Du Lys, for Nicky Henderson again, also looks capable, but disappointed two races ago at Cheltenham – the jumping was in question there.
I’m plumping for Dino Velvet at a nice price, as his second behind Defi Du Seuil at Chepstow reads quite well, with the winner the fancied favourite for the Triumph Hurlde at the moment.
I’m sure I’ve made it known in the past that I hate the Champion Bumper and I don’t think I’ve ever backed the winner. It’s tricky to work out what the form means, and we’re relying on just how well stables fancy their charges for next season. Willie Mullins was notorious for having this race sewn up in the past, but his stable has a dark cloud over it right now, so we’ll avoid his lot.
West Coast Time has to turn around form with Carter McKay, but has great flat pedigree and might just be able to turn it round on better ground than last time out. But in all honesty, this is really a crap shoot, and more about who to watch for next season.