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Alex Hammond says Willie Mullins will fare well at Cheltenham Festival

Features - Alex Hammond Posted 1st March 2014 view comments

Cheltenham fever is really grabbing hold now with less than two weeks until the greatest race meeting in the world (only a personal opinion!).

With the Sky Bet preview night coming up next Wednesday, I thought it was high time I had a look at some of the races to try and see where my hard earned was going to go.

For those of you not able to make it to Elland Road (why??) here are some early thoughts...

Tuesday

Supreme Novices' Hurdle - Sponsors Sky Bet have the Nicholls machine Irving as their 5/2 favourite at the moment and he's a very likeable horse. He has that all important flat speed, but I'm a bit worried that the meeting may start on ground a bit softer than he likes. Vautour is one of a host of Willie Mullins-trained horses with multiple entries. This is his target though and he poses a serious threat to the favourite given the prevailing conditions.

Mullins: has plenty of in-form horses at Cheltenham

Mullins: has plenty of in-form horses at Cheltenham

His stablemate Wicklow Brave is an interesting runner though, an improving horse who will suit the strong pace in the festival opener as he can be keen. Mullins won last year and I think he can win again, although I can't quite nail my colours to the mast yet.

Arkle Chase - Last year's Supreme winner Champagne Fever heads the market for the Arkle, but we haven't had the luxury of seeing this horse in action recently as Willie Mullins hasn't been happy with him and the ground. He was last seen in action on Boxing Day when finishing third to Defy Logic in the Grade 1 Racing Post Chase. He made a bad mistake there which put paid to his chances and he comes into the race with just the two runs over fences. I think the home challenge is strong with Rock on Ruby and Valdez two horses that should run a big race. 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby prefers better ground, so it may be worth hanging fire to see what the ground is like before getting involved because Fry has bypassed a couple of possible races this season due to soft/heavy ground.

Paul Nicholls' Hinterland shouldn't be left out of calculations either. He hasn't run since winning at Sandown in early December but goes well when fresh.

Alex on the Arkle
Quotes of the week

He acts very well at Cheltenham and thrives at this time of year and has been a bit overlooked despite being two from two over fences and his yard being in top form, he's a 6/1 shot with Sky Bet. Valdez can also run a big race for Alan King and at 10/1 looks more appealing than Mullins' favourite at 3s.

Paul Nicholls's Hinterland shouldn't be left out of calculations either. He also has an entry for the Champion Chase and although he hasn't run since winning at Sandown in early December, he goes well fresh. If the ground is no worse than soft, I'll be with Rock on Ruby in this.

Festival Handicap Chase - Oliver Sherwood has been enjoying a real revival in recent seasons and although he still lacks a horse of Large Action's class, he has some very nice horses in his Lambourn yard. Many Clouds is one of them and he may not be too badly handicapped. The trip suits and he has some decent form this season over fences including his recent second place in the Reynoldstown at Ascot last time out where he may have paid the price for a protracted battle with Gevrey Chambertin. It's a credit to his attitude that he kept on and he is the horse I like for this race at the moment.

Champion Hurdle - This could be the race of the festival. I think I need to get Willie Mullins' name on auto-type as I'll be mentioning it so much in this week's blog, and next week's for that matter! Maybe we'll just say WM from now on the save me getting RSI! His Hurricane Fly is bidding to win a third Champion Hurdle and for a horse who has won 21 races over hurdles with 19 of those in Grade 1 company he has plenty of detractors. He will meet The New One for the first time in this race and the vibes coming from the Twiston-Davies camp have been very positive. He was beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton over Christmas by My Tent Or Yours, but it's expected that Cheltenham can see a reversal of that form. AP (phew more initials!) has gone with My Tent Or Yours over Jezki. I've been following Jezki all season and seriously thought he could mount a strong challenge for this crown before the season got going. However, he's not quite stepped up to the mark and has been behind Hurricane Fly both times they've met this term.

Realistically he has to improve to beat The Fly and you can bet your bottom dollar now I'm deserting him he will probably do just that. Mind you, I don't expect AP would like to think he got on the wrong one and he will have had a harder time in making the decision, so I'll go with his superior judgement. If the ground is testing Melodic Rendezvous would be right in there with a chance. He's another horse who hasn't got the credit he deserves. On anything worse than soft I'll be having a saver on him (16/1). Our Conor trounced the opposition in the Triumph last year which has many people naming him as a future Champion Hurdle winner. He hasn't won since that race last year and things haven't gone as smoothly as Dessie Hughes would have wished as he sustained a nasty cut on his reappearance on the flat. However, he ran a much better race to be second to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion last time out and back at Prestbury Park you would be brave to completely overlook him. I tend to think Annie Power will run in the World Hurdle, we shall see. I'm going with Hurricane Fly as I still think there's life in the 'old guard' and the youngsters may have to play second fiddle for one more year.

Mares' Hurdle - Quevega has made this race her own and is bidding for her sixth win in the race this year if she runs. She equalled Golden Miller's record of five consecutive wins at the festival when successful last year and it would be remarkable to see her make it 6. Obviously there is the looming threat of stable-mate Annie Power, who is also entered, but I think WM will want to see this 10 year-old make her own bit of history. If it's value you're after (and who isn't?) I think Highland Retreat (16/1 with Sky Bet) could be worth backing for a place. Trained by Harry Fry, she is a progressive mare with a 50% strike rate over hurdles to date. The ground could still be suitably soft for her at the start of the meeting given that there is an inch of rain forecast over the next week or so. It may dry up as the meeting goes by, but there should be enough cut for her on day one.

NH Chase - Shutthefrontdoor has been one of my horses to follow this season and so far I wish I'd run in the opposite direction. However, I daren't desert him now as this race might be just the job for Jonjo O'Neill's chaser. He ran like a drain on his last start at Cheltenham in December, but he may just get the ease in the ground that he prefers on day one (he doesn't want it bottomless though). He also has the option of the RSA Chase, and the earlier Handicap Chase on Tuesday's card, but I hope he runs here. Jonjo feels he may not have the experience for the handicap and if he is under consideration for the Grade 1 RSA he must have a fair shout in this. He comes here fresh having bypassed a recent option at Wetherby and I can't overlook him now.

Novices' Handicap Chase - There is still, no confirmation as to who runs and who doesn't, but a couple of early thoughts. Charlie Longsdon trains Pendra for JP McMannus and the horse looks like he could be well handicapped, possibly very well handicapped. He was dropped a couple of pounds when beaten favourite at Ascot on his last start in December and is on 137 now. He was second to Melodic Rendezvous in the Tolworth last season and looks like the step back up in trip won't inconvenience him. Nicky Henderson's Ericht doesn't looks quite so obviously well handicapped, but he's a lovely novice who won well at Musselburgh last time out. He was fifth in the Coral Cup at last year's festival and has a few entries at this year's festival. He's still relatively lightly raced and can't be ignored.

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