Day One of the Cheltenham Festival is upon us and we look at the four Grade 1 races plus the Grade 3 Ultima Chase.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is set to kick the week off in style, with a fascinating renewal of the contest.
Willie Mullins has a fine record in the race in recent times but had to settle for second place in last year’s race when Min proved no match for current Arkle favourite Altior, who ran out an impressive seven-length winner.
The 11-time Irish Champion Trainer is aiming to bounce back and runs four in the race, with Melon looking like his most likely winner. He’s certainly been the talking horse of the Festival’s ante-post markets and arrives here with a huge reputation despite beating very little on his sole hurdle start.
The market move for the horse should certainly be noted but he looks too short in the betting at time of writing and there’s some each-way value to be had elsewhere in the field.
Last year’s winning trainer, Nicky Henderson, has two fascinating contenders, with River Wylde and Beyond Conceit, and the former could be the one to give the field most to think about.
He’s still unbeaten over hurdles and has been getting better with each start. Beyond Conceit isn’t without a chance and looks overpriced at around the 20/1 mark at the time of writing. They could prove interesting each-way options against what could prove to be a vulnerable favourite.
The Arkle is next up and it is very tough to see past last year’s Supreme winner Altior. He’s done nothing wrong over fences to date and provided he takes to the chase course (won twice over hurdles here), he will be near impossible to beat.
He has the beating of what looks like his nearest rival, Charbel, on their form from Sandown last time and it’s hard to see Kim Bailey’s charge reversing the form despite being freshened up with a mid-season break.
Royal Caviar is best of the rest and he had a Leopardstown Grade 1 within his grasp before falling at the final flight when last seen. However, two of his rivals had already fallen and it turned into a tactical affair so it’s difficult to envisage that level of form being good enough to play a part here despite the connections he represents.
The Ultima Handicap Chase looks a competitive affair and it is the 2015 winner, The Druids Nephew, who looks like the most interesting candidate. He’s not won since that win in 2015 but was an unlucky in the Grand National that year when falling with the race at his mercy. He may prove too good if he’s back to his best and the ground comes up anything like good.
The claims of the diminutive Holywell cannot be ignored off what looks like a very lenient handicap mark. He has not been at his best this year, admittedly, but his record at the Festival reads 1142 and that runner-up effort came in this race last year. He seems a better horse in the spring and there’s every chance his shrewd trainer will have him primed.
Gary Moore has made no secret of what high regard he holds Antony in and he may have needed his most recent outing at Sandown. There is every chance he’s still well-handicapped and he could go well in what looks like a typically competitive handicap.
If there is a race that looks unusually week it is this year’s Champion Hurdle. There’s no doubt it is a level below what it has been in recent years, with the absences of the likes of Faugheen and Annie Power.
The man who could benefit is last year’s Grand National-winning jockey David Mullins, who gets the ride on Brain Power for the Henderson team. The gelding is likely to be played late and provided there’s enough pace in the race, which is of little doubt, he should be there fighting it out at the finish.
His jockey’s strength in the saddle will be a great help coming up the famous Cheltenham hill and he may be able to give Sevenoaks their first winner since Binocular in 2010.
Amongst the dangers are stablemates Buveur D’air and My Tent Or Yours, who would both probably prefer softer ground. The New One will have his supporters once again but there is a feeling his chance has gone, with his best days no doubt behind him.
He must turn around a piece of form with Yanworth from Boxing Day if he’s to get involved. The aforementioned Alan King runner has been favourite for the race for quite some time but there are concerns he won’t be quick enough over his hurdles for a race of this nature and two miles around this course may not be his bag.
The Mares’ Hurdle is the final Grade 1 of the afternoon and short-priced favourite Limini looks opposable. The form of her Mares Novices’ Hurdle win last year has not worked out and she was perhaps a little lucky to beat Apple’s Jade when last seen. That rival didn’t appear to cope with the ground when she was made odds-on favourite for that race at Punchestown.
Jer’s Girl will no doubt enjoy the step back up in trip and she is undefeated at 2m4f. Any market support could well prove significant while Colin’s Sister*** should not be a 25/1 shot and ought to turn up in what looks like the best betting heat of the day.
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*** Update – Colin’s Sister now listed as non-runner