It’s here at last, and we are hoping day 1 will get us off to a flyer. These are our views now that final line-ups and conditions are known.
Race 1 – Supreme Novices Hurdle
Willie Mullins has been the festival master trainer in recent years, and his opening gambit is the unexposed Melon. With just one run, assessing his form is a mix of guesswork and rumour.
The U.K. handicapper is convinced enough to have Melon comfortably the highest rated, we would need more evidence at these odds.
We prefer the chances of battle-hardened Ballyandy, who comes here off the back of a smooth win in a competitive handicap at Newbury. That run captures his ability: good enough to win an average Supreme, not good enough if there is a star in the race.
We think it’s an average race, and Ballyandy’s proven love of festival conditions, as last year’s Bumper winner, will hold him in good stead.
Labaik should provide the source of humour in the race – a talented animal, but one who deigns to race only when it suits him, which is not often. He would be 10/1 if he started, but he’s 50/1 because he probably won’t. That’s an each-way maybe.
Recommendation Ballyandy (1330 Cheltenham), 7-2, generally available.
Race 2 – The Arkle Novices Chase
This looks set for last year’s Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, Altior.
The Nicky Henderson-trained novice chaser has hardly broken sweat in a series of easy chasing wins. He was superb last time at Newbury, earning a rating that has him miles clear of the other entries here.
He surely wins, but at odds of 1/4 he is unbackable. Equally he hurts the each way market as you are almost guaranteed to lose your win portion.
The way to play this race is the “betting without Altior” market – which reimagines the race as if Altior doesn’t take part.
Charbel is the worthy market leader and looks the second best horse in this race, but he may feel duty bound to challenge Altior and that could prove exhausting.
One horse we know will be ridden conservatively with a view to placing is course-lover A Hare Breath, and at 12/1 in the “without” market he offers some each way appeal (paying three places behind Altior).
Recommendation: A Hare Breath, 12/1, each way, (1410 Cheltenham) Betting Without Altior, Paddy Power
Race 3 – The Ultima Handicap Chase
The first big handicap of the festival, and a right royal chance to lace up those betting boots and get stuck in.
This is a race that has a great record for going to well-weighted but classy novice chasers.
This year, Singlefarmpayment, ticks every box. He has won twice over the course, stays the distance, and has so far jumped very soundly.
He was a cosy winner of a strong race here at the end of last year, and it may have been a blessing to his handicap rating that he was unfortunate to be brought down when still going well in a good handicap here in January.
Blessed with a good cruising speed, he looks tailor-made for this big field handicap. If he can avoid the misfortunes of his January run, then he has to have a huge chance here.
Noble Endeavour heads the dangers. He is a quality horse, but has shown more to the handicapper. He may have run into one here who is too well weighted to beat.
Recommendation: Singlefarmpayment (1450 Cheltenham), 15/2, generally available.
Race 4 – The Champion Hurdle
The main event of the day is the legendary Champion Hurdle, a race rich in history and studded with memorable performances.
Strong stayers can win this race, but usually from the front. That hasn’t been the tactic to date for favourite and strong stayer Yanworth.
His problem (which is the same for The New One and Footpad) is that the downhill stretch on this course allows a breather before the final surge, and one-paced stayers need to be in front or they find it hard to peg back the speedier types in time.
Brain Power as an upgraded handicapper with poor course form, and Moon Racer as an 8yo novice, both have history to overcome.
The most compelling claim could be that of Buveau D’Air, whose third in last year’s Supreme and win at Aintree may be the best form here, beating today’s rival Petit Mouchoir on both occasions. But drying ground does him no favours.
A pre-festival breathing operation is an interesting potential source of improvement for the long-priced Ch’tibello. Add in a first time tongue-tie and he doesn’t have too much to find to match Yanworth. He looks over-priced in a race which might just throw up a shock.
Recommendation: Ch’tibello, (1530 Cheltenham), 28/1, generally available
Breaking News : Ch’tibello is a non runner and our selection switches to Buveau D’Air at 5/1.
Race 5 – The Mares Hurdle
This race is usually the private preserve of trainer Willie Mullins, but he confuses punters on this occasion by running two of last year’s festival winners, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag.
Vroum Vroum was an easy winner last year, but her form this year, in defeat to Apples Jade and in victory last time is a long way below her best. The presence of Limini in the race perhaps shows a lack of confidence in Vroum Vroum defending her title.
Jockey Ruby Walsh certainly things so as he has decided to ride Limini. She only just made her seasonal reappearance at Punchestown recently, but that was an outstanding performance, comfortably beating Apples Jade. She has to have a solid favourites chance.
Apples Jade has to hope the onset of Spring improves her as it did last year, as she is held by the big names here on form this season.
If there’s one at a huge price it could be The Organist, who is switched back to hurdles having not taken to fences, and goes off at dismissive odds of 100/1.
Recommendation: Limini, (16:20 Cheltenham), 13/8, generally available
Race 6 – The National Hunt Chase
Time to trust the Coddfather. Jockey Jamie Codd is an outstanding amateur and gets the leg up here on the sturdy stayer A Genie in Abottle.
This could be a marriage made in heaven as the four miles looks likely to suit the horse perfectly, and he could have no finer assistance from the saddle. The owners have a huge number of horses in training, all aimed at being staying chasers, and have selected this one to carry the baton – take the hint.
The wonderfully named Beware the Bear has all the physical attributes needed for a race like this and is still improving. I thought he still showed signs of naivety at Newbury last time, and much as I like him, the rough and tumble of this race may need a more battle-hardened soul.
At longer odds, Arbre de Vie has always has a touch of class, and could show improvement now stepped up to a marathon trip. Whilst the recalcitrant Arpege D’Alene has ability if he chooses to show it.
Recommendation: A Genie in Abottle, (16:55 Cheltenham), 11/2 generally available
Race 7 – The Close Brothers Handicap Chase
A tight handicap with a narrow weight range, this is effectively a second division version of the JLT Chase.
Numerous horses appear to have been targeted at this and have good looking weights.
Trainer Dan Skelton runs It’s a Freebee, and he looks well handicapped on hurdles form. Elsewhere Bun Doran and Burtons Well could both go well for trainers who have successfully targeted these races in the past.
For the pick though, it has to be Foxtail Hill. He ran a field of experienced handicappers ragged at this course in January, jumping boldly from the front and proving impossible to catch. That form has worked out very well, and a similarly bold front-running effort could make him very hard to catch for a field of novices.
Recommendation: Foxtail Hill, (17:30 Cheltenham), 13/2 generally available
Please subscribe for notifications of up-to-date tips and news, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.