After a long, wet winter, the four-day Cheltenham Festival is finally upon us and the ground looks likely to be no better than soft for the opening day given there is now significant rain due to hit the track on Monday afternoon/evening.
The opening Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle looks a top-class renewal with Willie Mullins looking for a record seventh win in the race. Mullins’ saddles three including Asterion Forlonge who is unbeaten in four career starts including a fluent win at Leopardstown last time.
Tolworth winner Fiddlerontheroof will be hard to keep out of the frame – William Hill are again betting each way seven places – but Shishkin (1.30) has been hugely impressive in winning his last couple of starts at Newbury and Huntingdon and he gets the vote to give Nicky Henderson a fourth win in the race. Note Shishkin was a massive drifter on Monday night and Tuesday morning and was out to 11/2 (from 10/3) with Unibet who sponsor the Henderson yard. The betting suggests there will be an Irish winner with Asterion Forlonge and Abacadabras at the head of the market.
The selection, who runs in the same colours – that of Joe Donnelly – as Asterion Forlonge, does not have the form in the book that at least a couple of today’s rivals possess, but he is a strong traveller who won over an additional three furlongs last time. That proven stamina could prove crucial in what is likely to be a strongly run race.
If the Supreme looks a strong renewal, I’m not convinced the same can be said of the Arkle. I am a big admirer of Brewin’upastorm – 11/2 with BoyleSports – but I wonder if a five-runner race at Carlisle and a virtual match at Taunton over 2m 2f is an ideal preparation for this severe jumping test. He could easily be the best horse in the race, but this examination might come a shade too soon in his chasing career. The two-and-a-half-mile Grade 1 at Aintree next month might be his day in the sun.
There is plenty of pace in the race and I’m not convinced Mark Walsh gave Fakir D’oudairies (2.10) the best of rides when he was beaten over a length by Notebook when last seen over Christmas. Note he meets that rival on 7lbs worse terms this afternoon.
Today’s forecast soft ground will suit Joseph O’Brien’s five-year-old, however, who has good course form and is likely to be ridden more aggressively than was the case at Leopardstown. The selection missed the Irish Arkle – won again by Notebook – on account of the prevailing good ground but there are no such concerns this afternoon. Henry De Bromhead’s unbeaten chaser Notebook does look the one to beat but at 9/2 with William Hill I give the each way vote to Fakir D’oudairies.
I’ve backed Kildisart antepost in the following Ultima Handicap Chase, but the ground has gone against Ben Pauling’s eight-year-old. Despite the steadier of 11st 12lbs Vinndication would have been the selection at Ascot or Sandown, but is he the same horse going left-handed?
The Conditional (2.50) didn’t jump as well as he can in the Classic Trial at Warwick last time, but the handicapper has seen fit to drop him 3lbs and he returns to the scene of his C&D triumph from an 8lbs lower mark back in October. If jockey Brendan Powell can get him into a nice jumping rhythm, he is taken to reward each way support. Several firms are betting six places on the race and the selection is 15/2 (from 9/1) with bet365.
The Champion Hurdle is not a race I have a strong opinion about and I don’t know many people, going into the race, who have. Epatante has done little wrong and her Christmas Hurdle success at Kempton is, arguably, the best piece of form this term, but I am going to give Pentland Hills (3.30) one last chance having failed to get home in both starts this season when he has refused to settle. At 8/1 (from 5s) – each way four places with 10bet – I would be disappointed if he were out of the frame.
The Mares’ Hurdle looks a virtual match between Irish raiders Benie Des Dieux (4.10) and Honeysuckle but the former, who should be chasing a hat-trick in the race, looked better than ever when winning at Gowran Park last time and her handler Willie Mullins has compared her favourably with non-other than Annie Power recently. At 4/7 (from 4/6) with Bethard she gets a confident vote.
Honeysuckle has won all eight starts including her last two in Grade 1 company against the boys and this promises to be one of the races of the Festival.
Regular readers will know that the Novices’ Handicap Chase is one of my pivotal races of the week, having backed both Imperial Aura (4.50) and Hold The Note for this race some time ago. I have followed Imperial Aura since he was given an injudicious ride at Chepstow over timber on his reappearance and Hold The Note since he was beaten at Ludlow on his chase debut.
Marginal preference is for the Kim Bailey-trained runner, and he has drifted out to 11/2 with William Hill who are betting five places on the race. In the last 24 hours. I have also backed Dan Skelton’s Beakstown each way at 14/1 with Unibet who are betting five places on the race.
Carefully Selected (5.30) is the best horse in the race in the NH Chase which will be run over 3m 6f and not 4m as in previous years and I hope to see Patrick Mullins send favourite backers home happy.
There are many who will advise you he doesn’t jump well enough to win around Cheltenham, and he did survive a shuddering mistake three out to win at Naas last time when he was getting the better of the argument with Spyglass Hill when that one came down two out. He has been well backed overnight and is back to 13/8 with William Hill having been as big as 9/4 for much of Monday although I feel he may drift again later today. He is the class act in the race and promises to be well served by a true test of stamina although I appreciate his jumping tempers confidence.
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