The Cheltenham Festival bursts into action on Tuesday and here’s our final look at the four Championship races.
Champion Hurdle – Apple’s Jade @ 2/1
The opening afternoon feature sees defending champion Buveur D’Air facing two exciting mares in Apple’s Jade and Laurina in what looks a vintage renewal. Nicky Henderson’s dual-winner was beaten by stablemate Verdana Blue in his last serious race at Christmas and, as his trainer suggests, faces the toughest ask of his career now.
Laurina is an improving sort for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh – past masters in this very race – and could be anything, although she must prove her ability over the two-mile trip. Apple’s Jade, meanwhile, is a 10-time Grade 1 winner and she catapulted herself into this picture when winning the Irish Champion Hurdle last month in terrific style, smashing any fears that two miles would be too sharp when she did. Hard to believe she is only seven-years-old. A first Champion Hurdle crown for Gordon Elliott and Gigginstown House beckons.
Jumps racing’s biggest and brightest star, Altior, is coming here for his fourth Cheltenham Festival success and the first defence of his Champion Chase crown. He remains unbeaten over jumps and is closing in on a record streak of wins.
He is a rock-solid jumper and surely holds all the aces for Nicky Henderson in Wednesday’s feature. Old rival Min looks most likely to follow him home, with the forecast a very fair bet. It might be worth a speculative punt that Altior records the biggest winning distance of the meeting given the price.
‘The Machine’ is out to further carve his name into Festival folklore by adding a Stayers’ Hurdle to his record. Faugheen hasn’t been at his best this season, falling last time out at Christmas. But he was in the process of giving Apple’s Jade a race there, potentially, and that would be outstanding form. He romped to victory over this trip at Punchestown last season and the murmurs have been positive in his favour.
The form pick this term is Paisley Park, as short as 13/8 to score for Emma Lavelle, having won the Long Walk at Ascot and the Cleeve at Cheltenham on Trials Day. He will be viewed as ‘banker’ material by many but faces his biggest test here. Last season’s Albert Bartlett winner Kilbricken Storm is perhaps being overlooked in the betting.
Paul Nicholls knows a Gold Cup horse when he has one and the Ditcheat supremo has been bullish on the chances of his King George winner adding the Blue Riband to his bow. Not since Kauto Star a decade ago has Nicholls brought this prize home, but Clan Des Obeaux seems set to go well. He is ‘this season’s horse’, having come forward with Kempton success on Boxing Day before adding the Denman Chase at Newbury.
Conversely, last year’s one-two, Native River and Might Bite, are out of form, while long-time ante-post favourite Presenting Percy has to defy every trend in the book, having not run over fences since the RSA Chase last March. The dangers instead could come from Bellshill and Al Boum Photo, also improvers this season, attempting to give Willie Mullins his first Gold Cup win.
Retained rider for Nicholls, Cobden is flying this season, just like the yard’s horses. His rising status was in evidence once more in Sandown’s Imperial Cup on Saturday when he got Malaya home after a seemingly race-costing error two out. With Nicholls expecting a big week, Cobden could be amongst the winners and he looks overpriced to be leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival.
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