Do you smell that? The extra feel of electricity going round is not a power surge from the National Grid, it’s in the air because Cheltenham is finally here!
No more talking, no more excuses, the preening and posturing can stop. The greatest show on turf is set to go under starters orders.
Where to start?
The opening day is arguably the strongest. The Supreme Novices, Arkle and Champion Hurdle all have a rich history. Tuesday also enjoys a diverse feel with the Mares Hurdle, the Cross Country, a three miles handicap chase and a two and a half mile handicap novices chase. I’m already drooling at the thought.
It all starts with the Supreme Novices and the accompanying roar that sets the place alight. The pace in the Supreme Novices is usually electric and they go off hell for leather, with the best juveniles over two miles around Prestbury Park. The JP McManus money has piled into the ante post markets for DARLAN and he has been pin-pointed as the ‘chosen one’ for the infamous punter and owner.
A winner over course and distance in a novice hurdle, he was travelling like a dream in the Betfair Hurdle when falling two out, giving AP a terrible bump in the process. The way he travelled, suggests that the strong pace would suit him further, and he has a similar profile to previous winners. Although short enough in the market he has to be respected.
The other fancy is the top Irish juvenile STEPS TO FREEDOM for Jessica Harrington, whose yard is coming into form just at the right time. A Group Three winner on the flat, he has had a smooth transition to hurdles, by way of winning the champion bumper at Aintree last year. Since then he has won three out of three novice hurdles, and goes into the race unbeaten. He won a Grade Three novices hurdle at Punchestown on heavy ground, and followed that up with a win at Cheltenham over course and distance, getting up late to beat Prospect Wells. The trainer felt he should have won both races by further. He has been put away since and should be fresh and racing to go come March 13th.
Next comes the first of three odds on ‘bankers’ that the bookies could be absolutely crucified with. SPRINTER SACRE looks to go one better in the Arkle for the Seven Barrows yard than Finians Rainbow did when second last year when seemingly not getting up the hill. Sprinter Sacre has looked an absolute beast since switching to chasing winning his maiden chase by thirty lengths at Doncaster, before dismissing Arkle ante-post rival Peddlers Cross by 15 lengths in another novice chase. That set him up nicely for the Grade Two Game Spirit Chase at Newbury, where he beat last year’s winner French Opera, in the process of breaking the track record, all whilst not breaking sweat. He looks the part, travels, and jumps and looks a superstar for years to come barring accidents. Al Ferof is respected having won the King Henry VIII chase over course and distance and having beaten Sprinter Sacre in the Supreme Novices last year, but I fully expect that form to be turned round in emphatic style.
The other two hotpot favourites come from the Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins, in the form of reigning champions, HURRICANE FLY and QUEVEGA in the Champion Hurdle and the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle respectively.
Hurricane Fly has been better than ever since his victory in last years renewal, beating horses like Oscar Whisky, Overturn and Thousand Stars. His two runs at Punchestown and Leopardstown saw him win on good and heavy ground, by extended margins, both on the bridle, and he is simply different gravy to his rivals. Binocular has looked rejuvenated and Zarkander’s Triumph Hurdle form has been much boosted, but they both need to improve at least 7lb to get anywhere near the favourite if he turns up and is on song.
Similarly, QUEVEGA is completely different mustard when it comes to the mares division. She should surely win doing handstands to give her and Ruby Walsh a fourth consecutive mares hurdle.
The Cross Country is more of a spectacle than a betting opportunity and is a prize that is usually taken home by the Irish, who have dominated this race in recent years. The race is usually rather straightforward, with only one winner priced above 7/1 or greater in the last eight years. Last year’s winner SIZING AUSTRALIA went off a decent price around 13/2 and I can see him repeating that success for trainer Henry De Bromhead.
He led from the front and made all last year in impressive fashion, and has been patiently brought along this year, with this being his seasonal target. He teturned to the track in December, before a good tune up at Naas in a two mile handicap hurdle which will have him spot on. He will be getting weight from Scotsirish and Uncle Junior, the Willie Mullins pair, and has to be the value bet at the current prices at around the 5/1 mark.
That leaves us with the handicaps, and anyone who has any definite answers for handicaps over the Festival is a clever fellow. However, I just may have found the elusive ‘handicap good thing’. A horse I’ve backed and followed for years since losing many ante post vouchers on him for the Neptune in 2010 is QUANTITATIVEEASING.
The manner and style of his Gold Cup Handicap Chase win at Cheltenham in December was superb, and the step up to three miles should further enhance the seven year old’s chance. The form of that last race has worked out well with Medermit finishing second in a Grade One and Tatenen, Imsingingtheblues and Calgary Bay all running with great credit since. He goes well fresh, and has a great record around Cheltenham. The only serious danger to him could be NOLAND for Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, who has better form than the bare figures suggest. A Grade 1 winner in 2010 and Grade 2 winner last year, both over three miles, he ran a good race in defeat in Ireland before finishing sixth at Ascot, when his jumping let him down. Dropped another 2lb by the handicapper, he looks to be at a very workable mark.
The final race of the day is one of the handicaps that is usually taken on with great aplomb by shrewd trainer Ferdy Murphy, who had the winner last year with Divers (with our other tip Quantitativeeasing finishing second), and he has a good chance to taste victory again with GOING WRONG, who looks to be on a good mark for the Malton based trainer. He may not be the most obvious choice with Hunt Ball and Bless the Wings both having had very successful seasons, but given the trainers record at the festival, particularly in handicaps, he looks the one to be with. Up 9lb for victory in his last two novice chases at Sedgfield, the winning margins of five and threequarter lengths do not tell the whole story of the races. The latter race in particular caught the eye, where regular partner Graham Lee tracked the odds on favourite Realt Mor before easing him to the front after popping the last in the straight. He looks to be very classy and unexposed and looks to have the potential to improve further, especially over the extended two and a half miles trip.
1.30 Darlan & Steps to Freedom
2.05 Sprinter Sacre (Nap)
2.40 Quantitativeeasing & Noland (Ew)
3.20 Hurricane Fly
4.00 Sizing Australia
5.15 Going Wrong (Ew)