It’s Cheltenham, Jim. But not as we know it. For the first time the world famous festival of jump racing is being held behind closed doors. That means no mighty, spine-tingling Cheltenham roar when the tapes go up for the start of the Supreme Novices on day one. No huge cheers to greet the winners. Cheltenham without spectators, without owners, without bookies, simply won’t be the same. It’s no use us pretending otherwise.
Not only that, but there’ll be no amateur jockeys riding either. Again, it’s all down to the seemingly never-ending Covid restrictions. Field sizes are down too- just look at how many go to post in the big races on Tuesday. And on top of all of this a very familiar name will be missing from the trainers’ list. Gordon Elliott, who has trained 32 Festival winners is currently banned, with his horses transferred to the care of Denise Foster.
But amid the general doom and gloom, we still have some great racing to look forward to. On Friday, Al Boum Photo bids to become the first horse to win three consecutive Gold Cups since Best Mate and only the fifth horse in history- after Golden Miller, Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate- to win more than two Blue Ribands.
In Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle the mighty mares Honeysuckle and Epatante go head-to-head in an intriguing renewal which also has last year’s Triumph Hurdle’s unfortunate last flight faller Goshen thrown into the mix.
Last year our Sputnik Intelligent Punter’s Guide to the Festival was a rich source of winners and placed horses, getting off to a flying start with 16-1 shot Put the Kettle On winning the Arkle, so let’s see if we can do the same again!
To help us tilt the percentages in our favour, it is important to keep in mind the following key factors when deciding what to back.
- There’s no form like previous Cheltenham Festival form. Year after year we see horses who have won or run well at previous Festivals do the same again. Even if horses haven’t run before at the Festival, previous course form is a definite advantage. Look at Day One last year. Put the Kettle On, our 16-1 Arkle winning tip, had won over course and distance at the November meeting. Imperial Aura, who won the novices’ handicap chase, had finished second over course and distance on his previous start. The horse that had beaten him in January, Simply the Betts, went on to win a chase on Day 3 of the Festival.
- At modern Festivals, a few big yards tend to dominate. At the 2018 Festival 60% of the races were won by just three stables: Mullins, Elliott and Henderson. There’s no Elliott this year (his horses who haven’t switched yards will be saddled by Denise Foster) but Willie Mullins, who has already trained a mind-boggling 72 Festival winners, has assembled another very strong team. Other trainers who have shown they can do well at the Festival are Henry de Bromhead (two winners last year, at 16-1 and 9-4, and nine in total), Rebecca Curtis (five winners, including the 50-1 winner of the Stayers Hurdle last year) and Dan Skelton. Skelton drew a blank last year but won four hurdle races at the festival from 2016-19 and his yard is in cracking form at present.
- Age. These days the Festival’s top races are not usually a place for ‘golden oldies’; there’s been no winner of the Gold Cup older than nine this century, and no winner of the Ryanair older than nine since 2011. Since 2000 the average age of the Gold Cup winner has been 7.85.
- Going. Unexpected rain at Cheltenham on Sunday night means the meeting is likely to start with a combination of soft and good-to-soft ground. Not much precipitation is forecast for the rest of the week, and if that‘s correct, horses who prefer more testing conditions might be inconvenienced by Friday. Things could easily change though, so keep a close eye on the weather before backing horses later in the week who are particularly ground dependent.
- Finally, don’t feel obliged to have a bet in every race at the Festival. Or indeed put your entire betting focus on the next four days at Cheltenham. There are other race meetings taking place this week in Britain, where it’s probably easier to pick winners. Although the ‘bragging rights’ may be different, a 5-1 winner at Cheltenham pays no more than a 5-1 winner at Fakenham!
Now let’s take a closer look at the first two days’ action. A preview of day two, three and four will follow on Wednesday morning.
The feature race of Day One is the Champion Hurdle (3.30). Goshen, so unlucky in last year’s Triumph, is respected, but the two mares, Honeysuckle and Epatante, both have a very handy 7lbs allowance from the rest of the field and that gives them an obvious advantage.
Honeysuckle literally has a perfect record- she has never been beaten in 10 hurdle races and one point-to-point. Those hurdle wins included a victory in last years’ Mares Hurdle, while last time out she beat Abracadabras by 10l in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Epatante won last year’s Champion Hurdle very impressively (as we predicted) and although she was disappointingly beaten at long-odds on at Kempton last time out, we can be sure Nicky Henderson (going for his ninth win in the race), will have her primed to do much better today. It’s a tough call between the two, but multiple winners are a feature of this race, and that might just tilt things in Epatante’s favour. Regarding each-way plays, horses placed in the race in previous years do tend to come back and run well again (think of the likes of Melon and Theatreworld), so last year’s second Sharjah, could reward support at 10s.
The Ultima chase (2.30) is always ultra-competitive but last year we managed to find the second and third. Happygolucky (7-2) has good course form, which is an obvious positive, but against that favourites have a poor record. Devon trainer Nick Williams won this in 2018 and his One for the Team (13-2) has attracted ante-post support. The consistent Aye Right (11-2) has a similar profile to last year’s winner The Conditional, who also finished second in the Hennessy.
Two longer priced entries of each-way interest are Vintage Clouds (18-1) and Nietzsche (25-1). The former has been a regular in this: finishing third in 2018 off a mark of 141, second in 2019 off 144 and eighth last year off 151. He’s now back down to 143 so should be competitive. Nietzsche is stepping up into the unknown trip-wise but he was staying on at the finish over 2m3f at Doncaster on his penultimate start. His finest hour as a hurdler came when winning the Greatwood at Cheltenham as a 20-1 shot in 2018 and his form at the track reads 3613.
Last year we had the 16-1 winner of the Arkle, but this year just six go to post at 1.55 and we’ve got an odds-on favourite Shiskin, who should be hard to beat. If you don’t fancy wading in on last year Supreme Novices’ winner at 1-2,(and let’s face it that’s no working-man’s price), then perhaps an each-way play on Captain Guinness at 9-1 is the way to go. Trainer Henry de Bromhead won this last year with Put the Kettle On, and his representative this year was travelling well when brought down three out in the Supreme Novices last year. He fell last time when pressing the leader two out in a Grade One at Leopardstown but with a clear round could go close.
This year’s Supreme Novices is off at 1.20 (ten minutes earlier than usual) and Willie Mullins’ Appreciate It, just touched off in last year’s bumper but unbeaten over hurdles, is a worthy favourite.
In the mares hurdle at 3.40 Mullins, who’s won the race nine times in twelve runnings, should strike again with Concertista. Last year’s Coral Cup runner up Black Tears, a 14-1 shot, is one of the each-way possibles. In the National Hunt Chase (4.50), Galvin, who won impressively at the track in December, and was second at the Festival last year, makes plenty of appeal. In the Fred Winter (4.15), the sage advice could be to back Sage Advice each-way at 16-1. The Dr Richard Newland-trained runner has won on his last two starts on soft ground.
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