Christmas is around the corner. The Cheltenham Festival is finally on the horizon – another four days of normality amidst the growing monotony of our draconian COVID society. Enough of that – racing, racing, racing.
Four days, 28 races – I’ve tried my best to keep a close eye throughout the national hunt season, ahead of its pinnacle which runs from March 16th-19th. These are just my opinions, and shouldn’t be taken as Gospel – but if the vast majority prove to be correct, I’ll have no problem doing such come the end of the festival. Happy Christmas to all racing fans – safe and happy punting.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The festival curtain-raiser holds a lot of talent within its ranks this time out, with Appreciate It topping the betting following a string of impressive performances, particularly the Chanelle Pharma Hurdle. Asterion Forlonge is the only one of Mullins’ Chanelle Pharma winners to run in the Supreme and not win. Drying ground will be a concern and the current overwhelming favouritism isn’t justified just yet for Appreciate It. The verdict for me goes to BALLYADAM, now with Henry De Bromhead, with Soaring Glory also firmly among the argument. Ballyadam has yards to find on the favourite, but certainly has the ability in abundance with Jack Kennedy taking the ride.
This race did initially look to be a two-horse showdown, that being the battle of Shishkin and Energumene, before the latter was forced to pull out of proceedings. Another classic Mullins v Henderson Arkle tussle having won 7 of the last 9 between them. The likes of Captain Guinness, Allmankind and Franco De Port are all of notable interest. Henry De Bromhead has enjoyed success in the Arkle in the past, but I am siding with FRANCO DE PORT as I believe he represents the value in the market here. Should the race go at a fine pace throughout, which will likely be set by Allmankind, then it seems likely that Franco De Port will mop up late on to stake claims for victory.
Ultima Handicap Chase
This is a difficult race to pinpoint anyone you could be 100% confident about. However, David Pipe’s name is always one to monitor closely in the Festival handicaps, the Pond House handler having bagged 11 of these contests in the last 14 years. Remastered is unbeaten in three starts since going chasing this season and was impressive in a gutsy front-running showing in the Reynoldstown at Ascot, being particularly strong at the line. ONE FOR THE TEAM gave Next Destination a race at Newbury and then stayed on admirably in the Kauto Star. A real test of stamina will suit that horse, and he’s the one to keep close eyes on in my book, given his generous odds.
This is going to be a magnificent clash of the mares – with Honeysuckle now confirmed to be taking on Epatante. The 11-in-a-row winning Irish Champion Hurdle mare won the Irish equivalent of this race so impressively that it’s hard to side against her. That said, Nicky Henderson has trained three of the last four winners and is the master of this affair. A shock defeat to Silver Streak at Kempton might have turned a few heads on Epatante, but at her best, what a race we’ll be in for. Goshen will also provide a potent threat to the mares, and what a story that would be if Gary Moore and co. could steal top honours. My heart says HONEYSUCKLE, so does my head.
With no Benie Des Dieux or Honeysuckle, Concertista finds herself as the overwhelming favourite for the affair but again I’m going to rip up the script and side with the horse I believe can put it up to her best in DAME DE COMPAGNIE. The 2020 Coral Cup winner is back hurdling and was impressive at Ayr before being hampered and duly unseated at Sandown. She’s won three of her last four here and the outlier was over two miles. I believe she will relish the extra trip and is open to plenty of progression. Roksana will not have the speed to live with Concertista. Nicky Henderson’s charge relishes this track and if running anywhere near her best will surely command place claims at minimum.
Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
With Zanahiyr headed for the Triumph Hurdle, again the search here is for value. Houx Gris represents an interesting proposition, but a horse he has been closely matched with represents much better value. In the race where both made their hurdling bows, Oliver Greenall’s HOMME PUBLIC finished a place ahead of Houx Gris in second. A month later the placings were reversed, Homme Public going down by a neck. There are many factors to him that encourage support, particularly a recent showing at Market Rasen, and he has all the qualities to deliver at longer odds.
National Hunt Chase
Uncertainty surrounds the case of GALVIN given Gordon Elliott’s predicament (has since moved to Ian Ferguson since time of initial publication), but last year’s runner up at the festival has improved since. He travels strongly throughout his races and his jumping has considerably improved and should he be in the field then he is the one to watch for the final race on day one. Only three favourites have obliged since 1992 in this race, showing just how wide open it can be. Soldier of Love represents each-way value.
Ballymore Novices Hurdle
I find it very hard to go against Bravemansgame for this one but at the same time, I still will. He’s been compared to the legendary Denman which tells you all you need to know about his calibre. Here in Waterford though I believe we have a real gem on our hands in the name of BOB OLINGER. He’s won three races by a combined thirty lengths and looks a real star of the future and if he runs anything like he did at Naas then there’s no reason why he cannot land the Ballymore. Bear Ghylls is also worth a close eye at longer odds but it looks to be between Paul Nicholls’ machine and Henry De Bromhead’s young prodigy to kickstart day two.
Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase
MONKFISH for me is as good a novice as I’ve ever seen. He’s not just the banker of the day for St. Patrick’s Day, he’s probably the banker of the entire festival in my book. I would be shocked if Willie Mullins’ star doesn’t take home the honours, but on the off chance he doesn’t – I would consider Colin Tizzard’s The Big Breakaway to be his biggest threat.
Only two clear favourites have ever won, so this might be a case of throwing blind darts. Nicky Henderson’s MONTE CRISTO impressed when landing a competitive Kempton handicap at 25/1 at Christmas. There is plenty more improvement to come and he has already proven that testing ground suits when winning at Auteuil. Maze Runner had Christmas off before winning a Leopardstown handicap at the Dublin Racing Festival. A nice and stiff 2m 5f around Cheltenham on softish ground would appeal for this very lightly raced horse who holds notable each-way claims.
This race could well go to anybody, such is the quality of horses that are in the running. This race hasn’t always been kind to short-price favourites, and Chacun Pour Soi has never run at Prestbury Park before. The last 12 winners have all ran here before so I will side with history on that matter. Altior’s best days are likely a thing of the past but what a story it would be if the 11-year-old could make it a hat-trick. PUT THE KETTLE ON has a perfect record in the Cotswolds and the mare’s allowance will be telling in this intriguing battle.
This will be an interesting renewal of the battle of Tiger Roll and Easysland with there being visible holes to pick in both. Potters’ Corner is a horse that always has interested me and served with great distinction, but a disappointing recent run over hurdles in a sense deters any confidence in rowing behind him. The favourite, EASYSLAND is a short price for this one, and I expect him to retain his crown, but the top three will test each other thoroughly and it could finish in any order.
Another race which resembles the lottery but the standout seems to be the Joseph O’Brien raider EMBITTERED. He’s yet to win over fences, but that will be in his favour as it means running off a more lenient handicap mark. He’ll be rated 5lb less than he is over hurdles and his connections think highly of him as he has contested top-class races on his last two starts, without disgracing himself by any means. He could well open his account on the big stage. Cappucimix also represents value, with Entoucas also a real chance for Joseph O’Brien and company.
It seems to be a shootout of Kilcruit and SIR GERHARD who for me looks to be a better horse on paper. Sir Gerhard was really impressive at Down Royal and Navan recently and Kilcruit’s finish at Leopardstown was less convincing. Sir Gerhard seems to have more of a turn of foot than his now stable companion, and his finishing speed will likely be far superior. Overall, Sir Gerhard seems a rock solid selection – with Ramillies also not out of contention at higher odds.
Marsh Novices Chase
It’s going to be ENVOI ALLEN’s race. This horse is a superstar. It’s great that loyalty remains and Jack Kennedy will continue the ride. There’s not many superlatives I can use for this horse – he looks to be a future King George & Gold Cup winner and he’s a major coup for Henry De Bromhead despite the unfortunate circumstances. Another festival banker, and a race to just sit back and admire.
Pertemps Network Final
Imperial Alcazar slightly heads the betting, but for me – preference lies with the Nicky Henderson trained CHAMPAGNE PLATINUM. He’s the one to note in this field and if he stays then he’s the one to beat. I was thoroughly impressed with how he travelled at Haydock recently and if he replicates that level of performance whilst improving his jumping then he is certainly the cream of the crop in this. Dermot Weld’s Dalton Highway also seems to represent value for money as a strong finisher.
Min, Imperial Aura & Saint Calvados all arrive with questions to answer. For me, the one to beat is FAKIR D’OUDARIES. He ran a huge race at the Dublin Festival, gamely keeping on to the line and the trip of 2m 4f suits him nicely. He seems a horse with further improvement to come. Previously finishing 2nd in the Arkle, 4th in the Supreme & winning here in January 2019, he likes the course and I’d expect him to run well here in a field where the attention will be focused on others, leaving him to capitalise when push comes to shove.
Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle
This is simmering nicely for one serious spectacle with the likes of Paisley Park and Thyme Hill leading the home challenge. It hasn’t been a huge field of success for the Irish in recent times but I am going to side with FURY ROAD on an each-way basis. Having gained experience over an extra few furlongs in his Boyne Hurdle run, as well as good recent Cheltenham showing – he should time everything nicely to be at the forefront of the late challengers. I would also be keeping my eyes firmly fixed on Flooring Porter who has come in from 20/1 to 7/1 in the market.
Paddy Power Plate
It looks like Chatham Street Lad will compete in a different race so the likes of Farclas, Caribean Boy, The Shunter and such are all in with a shout here. In truth, I’ve found this probably the hardest race of the 28 to call – but if I did have to offer a blind dart I would take a stab at the aforementioned CARIBEAN BOY. He was an impressive winner of a Grade 2 at Newbury in November but has struggled on testing ground since, if all falls in his favour – he looks the one to beat.
Festival Mares’ Novices Hurdle
Royal Kahala and Roseys Hollow will be there or thereabouts but for me the verdict goes to Alan Kings’ talented 7-year-old THE GLANCING QUEEN. It’s tough to be confident in this wide open race. Back against mares, this horse could easily be a big player, as she is undefeated in four starts in mares only company, including winning a listed mares bumper at Cheltenham. She is a stayer and I wouldn’t discount her after impressing in her four runs over hurdles.
Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap
A decent proportion of those near the top of the betting here are either well exposed or on the downgrade. THE MIGHTY DON looks potentially well-handicapped on the pick of his hurdles form, and this trip looks as if it would be the minimum for his engine, he’s got a better chance of entering the picture than his odds currently suggest. Stepping up to three miles last time really worked the oracle for Jonjo O’Neill’s Time to Get Up, who will also be involved at the finale.
Tritonic’s odds were slashed after motoring home two weeks ago but the race is still ZANAHIYR’s to lose. His main threat probably comes from Quilixious, but he’s been an impressive winner – particularly in the Leopardstown fixture on Stephens’ Day and he remains the cream of the crop here. The Elliott crop look likely to take some honours, with new man Teahupoo also one to keep the eyes peeled for.
My selection here is Alan King’s EDWARDSTONE. Edwardstone won a four-runner affair at Market Rasen, which was followed by the Betfair Hurdle. He was clearly well served by the way that race developed and there’s every reason to think the County will suit him even better. It’s a race over the years where it has been almost impossible for the leaders not to go too fast for their own good, where winners tend to be strong travellers coming late from the second half of the field. Edwardstone is one where that cap most certainly fits.
Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle
This year’s Albert Bartlett renewal looks to be the perfect warm-up act for the Gold Cup, and I’m siding with more Willie Mullins’ success coming courtesy of BARBADOS BUCKS. He’s won three of his four starts over 3 miles and a furlong, defying a ten lb penalty in victory at Kempton over some horses in excellent form. He has come in from 20/1 as far as 8/1 and as more and more tips come out his value will continue to diminish. He looks the pick of the bunch.
Will Al Boum Photo replicate the feat of Best Mate and win three Gold Cups on the spin? I’m sticking my neck out big time here, and saying no. Bryony Frost and Frodon’s King George capture cannot be ignored, nor can the stamina displayed by A Plus Tard over the festive period. Minella Indo was my shout for this a couple of weeks ago but it is interesting that Rachael Blackmore now sides with the former. Native River was seriously impressive at this track over the past few weeks, but I am staying local and saying the Gold Cup is coming home to Waterford, it’s a toss up but it will come through MINELLA INDO who will be a nice price on the day.
St. James’ Place Hunters Chase
It Came To Pass was the name that jumped at me for this fixture but if Maxine O’Sullivan isn’t on board then I wouldn’t be as confident in the matter. Billaway is far from a banker and has it all to do to prove that he is the king of the hunter chasers, I’m siding with the JP McManus owned STAKER WALLACE to score for Enda Bolger, with Stand Up and Fight also competitive.
Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle
Local 33/1 shot COMMANDINGPRESENCE looks to be targeted for this affair by Henry De Bromhead, and my thoughts are between both him and Alaphilippe for the second last race of the festival. There’s not a lot that can be said on this race at the minute as it’s not entirely known whether or not some of the favourites will run in it or not, but the six-year-old local was an impressive Punchestown winner in September at 14/1, quickening clear off the home turn. Alaphilippe is 3 from 4 over hurdles, but it’s not yet known at the time of writing, whether he will run here or the Albert Bartlett.
Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase
There’s no history to go off with this being the first ever running of this race. Colreevy has improved leaps and bounds since making the switch to fences. The eight-year-old is unbeaten in three chases and was a gutsy winner at Limerick in December before sauntering to a wide-margin victory in a Grade 2 at Thurles in January. Willie Mullins has all the aces here, but as much as I would love to see Colreevy win for the Flynn’s in Dungarvan – ELIMAY who is three from hurdles, has a rating of 159 and that identifies her as the one to beat. Annie Mc will likely be the best of the British.
So, that’s that. I cannot wait to see the action unfold, whether I’m wrong 28 times or not. It’s great to have racing in these times despite the controversy the sport currently finds itself immersed in. Let’s hope it’s a week to remember after a week to forget on the reputation front.
I leave you with the Final Furlong Four: Monkfish (Brown Advisory); Champagne Platinum (Pertemps); Envoi Allen (Marsh Novices Chase) and Fakir Doudaries (Ryanair).
The greatest tip of all is to gamble responsibly, and remember that it’s all just a bit of fun.