The first day of the Cheltenham Festival is nearly upon us and opening Cheltenham roar that reverberates around Prestbury Park when the flag drops for the Supreme can nearly be heard.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the opening Supreme Novices’ hurdle with many horses seeming to hold leading chances in an open-looking race. Angels Breath’s supporters would have been disappointed when he got beaten in a Grade 2 at Kempton on only his second start. There were plenty positives to take from that run and with Nico confirming he’d be taking the reins over stablemate Mister Fisher earlier in the week, there has been a flood of money for this unexposed horse.
Connections are also represented by Al Dancer who’s unbeaten over hurdles and gained valuable handicap experience when running away with the Betfair hurdle when last seen. It takes a fair horse to progress from handicap company into a Grade 1 and considering his initial bumper form I think he’ll struggle to make the transition.
The Joseph O’Brien trained Fakir D’oudairies bids to become the first four-year-old to win the Supreme since Hors La Loi III in 1999. Joseph’s horse has got a similar profile to that winner having started his career in France. He looked quite impressive when winning at Cheltenham and I couldn’t put anyone off backing him.
For those of you looking for another Labaik priced winner, I quite like the chances of Aramon. The Willie Mullins trained gelding has had plenty of racing in both Ireland and Germany. He’s far from unbeatable but could sneak a place.
Selection: Fakir D’oudairies
Glen Forsa looks likey to jump off favourite for this after winning is last three starts, including a drumming of the reopposing Kalashnikov in the re-scheduled Kingmaker. Mick Channon’s charge seems to be adaptable trip-wise and although I really like him, I think he’ll be better over further.
Was an impressive course and distance winner in November when beating Dynamite Dollars. He was unable to uphold this form when the pair met again at Sandown shortly afterwards. I believe that run came too quick and we’ll see a different horse now.
Best of the Irish raiders appears to be the Gordon Elliott trained Hardline. The Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding who’s yet to finish out of the places over fences and was an impressive winner of a Grade 1 at Limerick over Christmas, when he had Getabird in behind. There have been strong vibes surrounding his chances coming from the Elliott team and he’s got a big each way chance.
It could be a very big 40 minutes for Mick Channon as he runs Glen Forsa in the Arkle and Mister Whitaker in this contest. Last season’s Close Brothers winner is one from three so far this year and should the rain arrive then he’ll have a big say.
Give Me A Copper returned from a lengthy absence at Sandown in February and ran perfectly well to finish fourth behind Classic Ben. That run should have set him up for this race and this lightly raced horse looks very well handicapped.
JP McManus is represented by the classiest horse in the field, Minella Rocco. The Jonjo O’Neill trained gelding finished runner-up to Sizing John in the 2017 Gold Cup but hasn’t run to the same level again and needs to find improvement. That’s quite plausible as he keeps his best form for Prestbury Park and was very impressive when beating Native River in the 2016 National Hunt Chase.
If we took a look towards the foot of the weights, Catamaran Du Seuil catches the eye most, with a runner-up finish behind Calipto a particular highlight. He comes with risks however as I’m not sure he acts on the track and he’ll need the first time addition of a visor to work the oracle.
Selection: Give Me A Copper
This is the first championship race of the week and on the face of it, the race looks weak. Obviously, Buveur D’Air is the horse to beat having taken the last two renewals of the race but he not invincible as Verdana Blue proved in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Nicky Henderson has said we will see a different horse in three weeks time and perhaps we will but at odds of 7/4, I’m more than happy to take him on!
Apple’s Jade heads up the Irish challenge and looks one of the more likely challengers for the Champion Hurdle crown. She has gone from strength to strength this season and her runaway victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle has forced connections to re-route her from the Mares Hurdle to the champion with Gordon saying recently:
“I was nervous coming back against the geldings over two miles (in the Irish Champion Hurdle), but she showed how good she is.
“This year she’s gone from strength to strength. We’re very lucky.”
She was a beaten favourite in the Mares Hurdle at the festival last season but it was well documented afterwards that her being season was the reason for a somewhat below form run. If she turns up in the same form as her most recent runs then she must go close but much like Buveu D’Air at around the 2/1 mark there is not much juice left in her price.
It’s another mare we take a look at next in the shape of Laurina, who had a recent prep run at Punchestown in a listed event where she proved too good for stablemate Stormy Ireland. She won that race snugly but will need to take a major step up if she is to trouble the front two in the market. After her most recent win Willie said:
“That’s job done and hopefully we’ll get a clear run from now to Cheltenham. The Champion Hurdle is where we are aiming. That’s the owners’ plan and our plan”
Laurina was one of last season’s top novices and she has never really had to come off the bridle in six racecourse appearances. I think there is more to come from Willie Mullins inmate and she is my idea of the winner.
Of the others, Verdana Blue is a very decent yardstick and she has obviously already beat Buveur D’Air but I think she will struggle to uphold that form and last season’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon has been a bitter disappointment this season.
The only other horse of note is the Gavin Cromwell trained Espoir D’allen, who’s only defeat in three starts came in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown in February last year behind Mr Adjudicator. He gained his revenge in no uncertain manner on season debut this season and followed this up with a brace of Grade 3’s at Limerick and Naas.
There is no doubt that he needs to find bags of improvement but he’s one of the few juveniles from last season that seems to have improved and at the tempting odds of 18/1, he’s got a definite each way chance.
This race is all about Willie Mullins and in truth, all about Benie Des Dieux. She took this twelve months ago and although we haven’t seen her since the Punchestown at the backend of last season, she’ll still take all the beating. She’s presently unbeaten in four starts for Willie and she may just have another Quevega on his hands.
Stormy Ireland was beaten when falling at the last in last year’s Triumph Hurdle and has come up against proper Champion Hurdle contenders most recently. She will undoubtedly fill the places but may struggle for the win purposes.
Another of the Mullins’ bandwagon is Limini who’s festival form figures read “13”. She is a very smart mare but I think she will struggle to get her head in front.
Outside of the front three, I like the chances of Slowmotion. The majority of her form has come over fences but when reverting back to hurdles most recently she finished less than 10 lenghts behind Laurina and at the likely big odds, she’s a great each way bet.
Win: Benie Des Dieux
This contest may go the way of the Joseph O’Brien trained Tower Bridge and in the process give him a first offical Cheltenham winner. The Grade 1 winning hurdler has been brought along slowly over fences. In fact, he’s yet to get his head in front but, I’d imagine this race has been the plan for some time and with the addition of cheekpieces he holds leading claims.
It’s another Irish raider that catches my eye in the form of Cubomania for Gordon Elliott. He’s been highly tried over fences in handicap company and has actually won all four starts over fences on British soil. Davy Russell will give him a holdup ride and I can see him rattling home up the hill.
It’s been many yaers since Tom Taaffe had the likes of Kicking King and Ninetieth Minute in his harness but he’s unearthed another smart looking sort with Ridersofthestorm. The improving six-year-old is already Grade 1 placed over fences and looked very good when shedding his maiden tag at Punchestown.
Selection: Tower Bridge
This event wraps up day one of the festival and all the talk in this race has been about Ok Corral, who finished runner-up in the Albert Bartlett at the festival last season. Connections intentions were clear when leading Irish amateur Derek O’Connor came over to rid him in a listed event at Warwick in January. The free going son of Mahler settled well that day but there are chinks in his armour and with the hustle and bustle of the festival likely to get to him, I’m willing to take him on.
It’s another Cheltenham runner-up from last season that’s my idea of the National Hunt Chase winner. Discorama finished second in the Martin Pipe last season and has been one of the talking horses on the Cheltenham preview rounds. Paul Nolan’s inmate went straight into a Grade 1 following his first run/win over fences and was bang in contention when falling at the last in a race won by Ballyward most recently.
Of the bigger priced runners it may be worth having a small interest on Whisperinthebreeze who landed a big handicap at Leopardstown when last seen and if we don’t get too much rain then he’d have a chance.