The 2021 Cheltenham Festival is due to be run on ground described as soft by clerk of the course Simon Claisse on Monday morning following 10mls of rain overnight. There is little or no further rain due for the rest of the week, but conditions are unlikely to dry out too much with daytime temperatures not expected to get above 10-12 degrees.
Just eight go to post for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle but it is a good renewal of the Festival curtain raiser with the market headed by the unbeaten hurdlers Metier for Britain and Appreciate It (1.20) for Ireland and it is the latter who I feel will give Willie Mullins a record seventh win the race.
Metier has not seen the track since running away with the Tolworth Hurdle on desperate ground at Sandown at the beginning of January and all three of his jumps’ successes have come on soft/heavy ground. Trainer Harry Fry had a welcome winner at Doncaster last week, but he has had a quiet winter by his own high standards, and I believe Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory will be the best of the British quartet.
Appreciate It travelled like a champion when caught close home in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and I am not of the opinion – like so many – that he does not possess the necessary speed for the minimum trip on good ground. I wrote an article for a Racing magazine pre–Dublin Festival which suggested he would land the Ballymore, but his fluent win in the Leopardstown Grade 1 told me he was quick enough for the Supreme. He can lead but For Pleasure will make sure it is an end-to-end gallop and Appreciate It can give the Irish first blood with Ballyadam taken to give the Irish a 1-2. At the time of posting the selection is 5/4 with William Hill but I would expect there to be a slightly bigger price available on Tuesday morning.
Shishkin (1.55) cannot be opposed in the Arkle despite hitting a bit of a flat spot in his last couple of chase starts. He is economical rather than spectacular over the larger obstacles and he will get further in time, but he is an absolute superstar and should be too good for his five rivals. The one slight concern is the in and out form of the Henderson yard with Altior an 11th hour defection from Wednesday’s Champion Chase. The selection is 1/2 and will be in many multis across the four days.
The Ultima is one of my favourite races of the year, but I must admit to being underwhelmed by the quality of the 16-runner field. One For The Team was my selection for the race until the Sunday evening deluge and I do think the ground has gone against the Nick Williams trained novice.
Happy Go Lucky is a worthy market leader, and he would not have looked out of place in the race formerly known as the RSA later in the week although the presence of Monkfish has persuaded Kim Bailey to go down the handicap route. It is only his price – 7/2 – which is the worry.
Discordantly (2.30) has failed to complete in his last couple of starts but was still going well when knuckling on landing five out at Punchestown last time. He has bits of form which suggest he could be well treated, and Robbie Power keeps the ride. The 16/1 available with William Hill – 5 places – looks a fair each way price and he gets a narrow vote ahead of Aye Right who deserves to win one of these big handicaps following several excellent runs this term.
The market for the Champion Hurdle is headed by last year’s winner Epatante and the unbeaten Honeysuckle (3.05) and these brilliant mares receive 7lbs from the geldings which makes it very difficult for the boys. I’m not convinced everything has gone according to plan with Epatante and the form of the Nicky Henderson yard is a slight cause for concern.
Honeysuckle – 2s with sponsors Unibet – looked better than ever last time when running away with the Irish Champion last time in a very good time. That was a career best performance by Henry De Bromhead’s stable star, and she will have the race run to suit with Not So Sleepy likely to make it a true test. The biggest danger is likely to come from Goshen who had the Triumph Hurdle at his mercy when unseating Jamie Moore 12 months ago and who bounced back to his best form when annihilating his field at Wincanton last time.
I would not be surprised if Minella Melody nicked a place in the Mares’ Hurdle, but it does look a match between Roksana and Concertista (3.40) and I feel the Irish raider will follow up her impressive win in the novice event here 12 months ago when she put 12L between herself and runner up Dolcita who reopposes this afternoon. Roksana has improved for the step up to 3m this term and I am slightly surprised that she has not taken her chance in the Stayers’ Hurdle especially following the late defection of Thyme Hill. She was beaten 12L in the corresponding race behind Honeysuckle 12 months ago and Concertista – 11/10 with Boylesports – is a strong fancy.
Houx Gris and Saint Sam head the market for the Boodles and a win for either would not be a surprise representing their leading yards, but they are short enough in the betting – only one favourite has won the race in the last decade – and my two each way alternatives are Balko Saint – 25s with William Hill – and Her Indoors (4.15) with marginal preference for the latter who is 25s with BetVictor 5 places.
Balko Saint only just got up at Wincanton earlier in the month, but I always felt he had the race under control and he and the runner up were clear of the third. Her Indoors won a listed race at Doncaster on soft ground last time and is a strong stayer who should be staying on when others have cried enough. She would have liked the track to miss Sunday’s rain but at 28/1 she gets the ew vote.
Some of the races on the opening day are below par but not the concluding NH Chase which is a terrific renewal. Escaria Ten bypasses the Ultima to wait for this 3m 6f test and is unbeaten under Adrian Heskin.
Marginal preference is for the Paul Nicholls trained Next Destination (4.50) who was a Grade 1 winning hurdler for Willie Mullins and has taken well to fences since returning from a 900-day lay-off earlier in the season. He has only beaten six rivals in his two wins over fences, but I do not think this bigger field (13) will hold any terrors given Harry Cobden is likely to race prominently on a horse whose Festival record reads 4th in the Champion Bumper and third in a vintage Ballymore three years ago. The selection is 7/2 with 10bet.