Day 1 of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival is fast approaching. Here are the 7 races that we have to look forward to, on what promises to be a thrilling curtain-raiser!
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The Festival opens with one of the most important contests of the whole meeting. The Grade 1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle features the world’s best young jumpers and the start of this race elicits the biggest Cheltenham Roar of the week.
Labaik was the shock winner of last season’s renewal and trainer Gordon Elliott could not contain his delight. Samcro looks to be one of his best hopes for 2018. He is unbeaten in 5 starts, although all of those encounters have taken place in Ireland. Samcro was an easy winner of the Grade 3 Monksfield Novice Hurdle, at Navan in November, beating Jessica Harrington’s Jetz by a full 12 lengths. The remains a suspicion that this horse has not been really tested though, as of yet. He was sent-off at odds shorter than even-money, in each of his 5 outings.
Many ante-post bettors also like the look of Mengli Khan and it’s easy to see why. This Elliott inmate is already a Grade 1 champion, having seen-off Joseph O’Brien’s Early Doors in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle (Fairyhouse). The 5-year-old has plenty of experience on English turf, although he’s yet to cut his teeth at Cheltenham.
When the race gets underway, it will have been 3 years since Willie Mullins last won it. His charges brought home the money in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan) and he will be mustard-keen to get another Supreme victory under his belt. Sharjah is expected to lead his attack, although the Doctor Dino-sired gelding suffered a setback in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle – falling at the last when very-much in contention, although it should be remembered that Mengli Khan had already ran out at that stage. Mullins’ other contenders include Real Steel, Next Destination, Sayar and Getabird.
Claimantakinforgan is a horse whose name is something of a mouthful and there are plenty talking-up the chances of Nicky Henderson’s charge. The 6-year-old stayed-on very strongly to account for Dr Des, in the Grade 2 Ascot Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle. He was also 3rd in last season’s Champion Bumper, when given very little market-support. Claimantakinforgan appears to be a late developer and Henderson, who won the Supreme with Altior in 2015, will have his eyes on the prize once again.
Most expect the race to be a contest between the rising stars of Elliott, Mullins and Henderson, but Harry Fry has a real sizzler in If The Cap Fits and victories at Exeter, Bangor and Kempton have put him right in the frame. The last came in a competitive Class 2 affair that also featured Diese Des Bieffes and Simply The Betts. Other horses worth keeping an eye on over the coming weeks include Pym, Bullionaire, Kalashnikov, Debuchet and Brian Ellison’s Ravenhill Road.
The Arkle Challenge Trophy
Recent Arkle winners include Sprinter Sacre, Un De Sceaux, Douvan and Altior, so whatever horse is first past the post in 2018 is likely to be something special. Willie Mullins’ Footpad has certainly looked in that category, when the jockey has hit the accelerator in recent outings. The 2016/2017 campaign was a frustrating one for connections but Mullins looks to have got him right this season and Footpad followed-up victory at Navan with an emphatic defeat of Any Second Now in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. While a faller, Gordon Elliott’s Death Duty was already beaten in that race so the contest very-much stands in terms of form.
Sceau Royal, 6th in the Champion Hurdle and ahead of Yanworth, should be among the principal threats. He’s enjoyed 4 outings already this season and has won 3 of those races. Sceau Royal was the surprise winner of the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase and while Brain Power came to grief 3 from home, both Finian’s Oscar and North Hill Harvey did finish and majorly in arrears. The latter of that pair beat Alan King’s horse by a neck though, in a Class 2 contest at Cheltenham – a course where Sceau Royal has bags of experience, although his last victory here came in December of 2016.
Petit Mouchoir‘s 3rd in the Champion Hurdle cannot be ignored and he fully justified odds-on status when comfortably beating Brelade in a beginners chase at Punchestown in October. Those looking for a big-price ante-post option will be paying close attention to the roadmaps of Willoughby Court, Melon and also Sutton Place who showed a clean pair of hooves to Kemboy at Fairyhouse on New Year’s Day.
The Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase
It will come as no surprise that this contest is massively open, even though Un Temps Pour Tout became the first horse to achieve back-to-back wins since Scot Lane (1982/1983) last year. David Pipe’s inmate has not been seen on the track since then though and it’s clear that regaining his crown under top-weight took a heavy toll. Un Temps Pour Tout will not be seeking an historic treble.
“Sadly, we will be without one of the Pond House standard bearers this year as dual Festival hero Un Temps Pour Tout will not be bidding it to make three in a row this time around. His second consecutive victory in last season’s Ultima handicap chase under top weight took a long time for him to get over. We were aiming to bring him back for the spring but have decided to give him more time and look forward to a full campaign with him next season.” said Pipe, this weekend.
He’ll certainly be missed but the likes of Singlefarmpayment, Gold Present, Squouateur, Anibale Fly, Beware The Bear and Frodon all look capable of going very close under a fair burden. Those looking for a really big Day 1 dividend could be tempted with a small flutter on Mala Beach, Mall Dini, Robinsfirth, Total Recall, Ucello Conti, Go Conquer, Pendra, Polidam or The Young Master. In the last 4 years, the winner has carried a minimum of 11st 3lb – prior to this period, the previous 11 winners were given a weight of 11st 2lb or less which does indicate a new trend of highly-rated runners defying the handicapper.
The Champion Hurdle
Many already already thought that Buveur D’Air was well on-course to defend his Champion Hurdle Crown, before Nicky Henderson’s star blew rivals away in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. Barry Geraghty did make him suffer the indignity of being lightly shaken-up, but he immediately sped away from the New One once urged. It was Buveur D’Air’s fifth Grade 1 success and it seems highly unlikely that the 7-year-old won’t begin Tuesday’s feature contest as the odds-on favourite.
“I watched him over the first two and he was quite low, Barry said you wouldn’t see anything quicker from A to B. He said he was too young to remember See You Then but that was also his asset. The great thing is he just flicks the top bar but he knees are up, his feet are in and out and he’s gone. That was great. He needs to run again and he’s still not lighter than he was at the start of the year.” Henderson told reporters, following the comprehensive victory at Kempton.
If Faugheen line-up in the same race, we could see one of Cheltenham’s most epic duels in recent memory, but Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins’ suffered a huge setback at Leopardstown when the horse (who has only recently returned from a long-term layoff) was pulled-up in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle. However, it seems that his injury woes have not returned and Paul Townend simply got no response when he asked Faugheen for more when Cilaos Emery cruised past him with a full 6 furlongs still to travel.
“He’s not distressed or anything,” Ricci said. “Paul pulled him up because he wasn’t going anywhere. When Cilaos Emery went by him, he would normally have picked up the bit and cracked on, but he just didn’t. I knew he was toast then.”
Punters have since voted with their money and bet against Faugheen, who is now fighting for the status of second favourite with Melon. My Tent Or Yours could have yet another crack at the race following his win in the Grade 2 International Hurdle, but the last horse to win as an 11-year-old was Sea Pigeon and Nicky Henderson’s potential second-string is not regarded as being quite that special.
Defi Du Seuil, Min, Mick Jazz and Wicklow Brave are others that appear in our current ante-post market, but Buveur D’Air is very-much in the box-seat as things stand.
The Mares’ Hurdle
While Apple’s Jade is also in our Champion Hurdle ante-post market, most pundits strongly believe that the mare will once again compete against strictly female adversaries in the encounter that follows. Who will ever forget the thrilling denouement of last season’s renewal, when Gordon Elliott’s inmate held-off the challenges of Vroum Vroum Mag and Limini in perhaps the most-thrilling finish of the Festival? Apple’s Jade is unbeaten in a quartet of races that have taken place since then – all in Ireland. Most-recent was the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle, at Leopardstown, where Jessica Harrington’s Supasundae proved to be a formidable opponent under Robbie Power following the fatal fall of the much-loved Nichols Canyon.
Vroum Vroum Mag is expected to have another tilt at this, although many punters are showing a preference for another Mullins representative. Let’s Dance was a faller in the Listed Grabel Mares Hurdle at Punchestown, but she put that failure behind her when beating the winner of that race (Forge Meadow) by 8 lengths in the Grade 3 Irish EBF Mares Hurdle in late-December. Let’s Dance won the 2017 Grade 2 Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, although the standard of that renewal has been questioned by some.
Benie Des Dieux and Augusta Kate are also likely to appear, in a race that has always been dominated by the Irish. Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace may provide a degree of home opposition, but Tricolours are expected to be waving wildly again when the 11th Mares’ Hurdle is at its end. It’s not easy to oppose Apple’s Jade at this point, particularly as Elliott showed no ambiguity after the Christmas Hurdle.
“She’ll be against the girls next time in Cheltenham, the mares’ race is the plan”
The J T McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup
Jury Duty looks capable of going very close for Gordon Elliott, in this race. The 7-year-old finished 3rd in the Pertemps at last season’s Festival and he’s been racing consistently in Ireland, since then. This event is always wide-open though and the favourite is likely to go-off at a hefty price. Our ante-post market includes Presenting Percy, Elegant Escape, Black Corton, Monalee, Bacardy’s, Constantine Bay, Battleford, The Worlds End, Rathvinden and many other familiar names. Cases can be made for all, until we know what kind of ground the horses will be competing on.
The contest is for amateur riders and the name has recently been changed to honour the great JT McNamara who tragically fell and broke his neck at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival. JT rode Teaforthree to victory in the 2012 renewal of this race. His brave battle for survival will never be forgotten.
The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
An amazing opening-day will end with this two and a half mile contest that has only been won by the favourite twice. The last 8 renewals have been taken by horse’s carrying at least 11st 8lb. Other than Ferdy Murphy, no trainer has won the race more than once and it’s likely that many punters will be still scratching their heads and studying the form when the flag drops.
Horses expected to line-up include Movewiththetimes, Ballyandy, Ballyhill, Demi Sang, Divine Spear, Hell’s Kitchen, Peter The Mayo Man, Rather Be, Rocklander, The Storyteller, Any Second Now and Bon Papa. Tully East won last year, for Alan Fleming.
This Listed affair is often overlooked by many, particularly as it falls on a day with so much top-class action. However, it’s always an exciting race which offers lesser-known trainers and jockeys the chance to scoop the Cheltenham winner that they have always dreamed of getting.
Good luck, if you are betting on the races at this year’s Festival!