The festival is here!
This is week that we start counting down to as soon as the previous meeting has concluded and it's upon us so let's hope we can have a bit of luck. Here's a run through some of my fancies for the four-day meeting.
I'm very keen on one to get us off to a good start in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Darlan hasn't had the ideal preparation for the festival, taking a heavy fall in the Betfair Hurdle on his last outing, but he is very well fancied by trainer Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus. He's owes jockey AP McCoy a favour having buried him at Newbury but despite that AP came back in and said good things about the horse. He's 9/2 with Sky Bet to win this, but if you got any of the 25s or 33s that were around a short while ago, you can feel pretty pleased with yourself because he has an outstanding chance. I think his main danger is Galileo's Choice who should go well for the master trainer Dermot Weld, he's currently 7/1.
The Arkle Chase is all about Sprinter Sacre and I can't see anything beating this horse if he stands up. He is a smashing old fashioned chaser and really gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing up when you watch him. I'd love to see 2010 Champion Bumper winner Cue Card run well for his inform trainer Colin Tizzard (6/1). Sprinter Sacre is 4/5 fav with Sky Bet and as there is no such thing as a bad priced winner he could be value!
The 3m 1/2 f Handicap Chase is the third race of the meeting and there are co-favourites of three here. Quantitativeeasing, Hold on Julio and The Package are all 6/1 with Sky Bet. The Package is heading for the National, but he could go well in this first. He was second in the race two years ago off 141 and is now rated 139 so his chance if there for everybody to see. Hold on Julio has missed a couple of his intended targets as he hasn't been right, but he is an excting progressive chaser, albeit lacking a bit of experience and I'll give him a swerve for now. Donald McCain's Our Mick is the horse I'm siding with. He put up a career best last time out behind For Non Stop and at 12/1 is each way value. Time for Rupert (14/1) hasn't made up into the horse he promised to be, but he could run well at a track that suits him well. If you fancy the first three favourites to go in that is available at 33/1 with Sky Bet.
Hurricane Fly is the hot favourite to retain his Champion Hurdle crown. Binocular is almost the forgotten horse but on his best form he is a serious contender. We haven't really seen him at his best since his win in the 2010 Champion Hurdle but he put up a much more promising performance at Wincanton last time out which puts him in there with a shout. I think the rest have to put in an inspired performance to beat the 4/6 favourite but I wouldn't mind backing Overturn in the market without the favourite for which he is 8/1. He has been working like a train and is an admirably versatile horse for his trainer Donald McCain.
There is a short priced favourite in the Mares' Hurdle. Quevega is bidding for her fourth straight win in this race and her price of 1/2 reflects her chance, she has had the same preparation as last year and should give Willie Mullins a winner on day one. Unaccompanied bypasses the race so I think the each way value lies with Our Girl Salley who is 9/1.
If Hunt Ball wins the 2m 4 1/2f Novices' Handicap Chase expect carnage in the winners enclosure. His owner Anthony Knott is a colourful character and loves his horse. He has improved beyond all recognition and I hope he runs well. However there is a very strong word around for Nicky Henderson's Triolo d'Alene who isn't a huge price I'm afraid, but that doesn't put me off and I'll be backing him at 5/1. He could give us a great end to day one.
The four mile NH Chase gets the ball rolling on Wednesday. Sir Alex Ferguson has some great chances at the meeting and he is one of the owners of the co-favourite Harry the Viking (6/1 with Sky Bet). The Paul Nicholls trained horse has the assistance of Will Biddick in the saddle and comes here having won his last four, the form of his latest Doncaster win has worked out well. The Willie Mullins trained Alle Garde is another of the co-favs, he stays forever and will like the ground and he's smart Novice in Ireland. Mullins also trains the third co-fav Soll. There is a positive jockey booking on Tea for Three (7/1) and I'd like to think Rebecca Curtis' horse will be involved in the finish.
Boston Bob is in both the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and Albert Bartlett (Friday). The latter is his most likely destination but he's 5/2 for this. Simonsig is the market leader at 5/2 for Nicky Henderson and he certainly looked impressive at Kelso last time out. Sous Les Sieux will suit the step up to this 2m 5f and at 7/1 he'll do for me. Mind you, if Boston Bob runs in this he will be my selection!
Will he/won't he? I'm talking of course about Grands Crus' participation in the RSA Chase. David Pipe's grey is also in the Gold Cup and a decision on his target will be made the day before the festival. If he runs here I think he will be hard to beat, but will the temptation to go for gold be too strong? He is 6/4 favourite for this race. Sir des Champs (4/1) is another leading contender from the Willie Mullins stable and comes here having won his last six in a row.
Paul Nicholls has saved Join Togther for this race and at 6/1 he looks a more enticing bet than the favourite. He stays well and importantly jumps and I'll have a bit on him, although Grands Crus will be hard to beat if he runs in this.
On paper the Champion Chase looks to be between Sizing Europe and Big Zeb and it's Sizing Europe all the way for me. He is 10/11 favourite after his impressive performance in the Tied Cottage Chase last time out and he can repeat his win in this race last year. Finian's Rainbow has good place chances for Nicky Henderson and he is 9/2. However, you may want to back him in the market with the favourite for which he is 7/4.
The Coral Cup market is headed by Get Me Out Of Here for Jonjo O'Neill and JP McManus (8/1 with Sky Bet). He was an unlucky loser in the Betfair Hurdle behind Zarkandar when hampered by Darlan's fall. However, I think the horse for me in this super competitive handicap hurdle is joint top weight Carlito Brigante for Gordon Elliott (16/1). He won this race last year off a 13lb lower mark but if he can reproduce his best efforts then he won't be far away and he does like the ground. He ran well enough on the all weather at Dundalk last time out and there's no doubt all roads will have been leading to Cheltenham. It's intersting the World Hurdle was also under consideration for this horse and if they think he's up to taking on Big Buck's then he must have a great chance of repeating last year's win in this.The market leader for the Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle is Alan King's Vendor (7/2). The Barbury Castle handler has some very good juveniles this season and this horse looks to be one of them. He has only had the one start for King winning at Newbury in December. Prior to that he was trained in France. It's expected he will enjoy the ground at the festival. Ulck du Lin and Kazlian are next best at 7/1. I think this is a race for the favourite though. Alan King thinks he's a really smart horse and hasn't run him since Newbury to protect his handicap mark. He has apparently worked and schooled very well since then and off that mark he maybe hard to beat.
The Champion Bumper brings the curtain down on day two. There are some blue bloods in this, but none more so than John Ferguson's New Year's Eve who was bought for the Darley team for 120,000 guineas as a yearling by his current trainer John Ferguson (who is Sheikh Mohammed's bloodstock advisor). He is 6/1 to give his trainer a first festival winner and comes here having won both his starts. Barry Geraghty takes over from Jack Quinlan on Wednesday. The horse that I think offers more value than him is Sir Johnson who has done nothing wrong for trainer Peter Bowen having won all four of his bumper starts. At 16/1 he is each-way value.
It's interesting that Peddlers Cross runs in the Jewson Novices' Chase rather than the Arkle. I'm not sure this is a positive sign for punters though despite that he is 3/1 favourite. He is classier than the rest but is he at his best? I'm going to take a chance on Champion Court, who is 8/1 for Martin Keighley. He has a couple of entries this week but I hope this is where they send him. He won at Cheltenham in the Dipper last time out despite his jockey dropping his whip and he likes this sort of ground. He has been working well.
David Pipe's Our Father is well fancied for the Pertemps Final and is 11/2 favourite. He won on his handicap debut at Ascot last time back in December off a mark of 129 and has to overcome a 19lbs hike in the ratings if he is to win this. However, he looks capable of substantial improvement and he is well regarded. This could prove to be the bet of the meeting!
The Ryanair Chase looks fascinating. Riverside Theatre is the 9/2 favourite after his reappearance win in the Ascot Chase last time out. I'm just concerned that a flat track may suit him better and think he is worth taking on. Rubi Light (5/1) could be the one to oppose him with. He ran well in this last year and although he would like some juice in the ground he handled good last year when third to Albertas Run. What a training performance it will be if Jonjo O'Neill wins this again with Albertas Run who is 8/1 to repeat last year's win on his first start since sustaining a tendon injury back in October. Noble Prince (5/1) could be the one for Paul Nolan. He has been running over shorter than his optimum trip and the step up to this 2m 5f will suit. He won the Jewson at the festival last year and handles the ground. Alan King's Medermit also has the option of running in the Gold Cup. He is 7/1 for this race.
The World Hurdle is dominated by one horse, Big Buck's, who has won this for the past three years and would require a catastrophic event not to make it four. He is also bidding for his 16th consecutive victory and is 4/9 favourite to do so. In the betting without Big Buck's I would have a wager on Dynaste at 4s. David Pip e's grey was second to Big Buck's in the Cleeve Hurdle and can run well behind him again. I know Oscar Whisky is also fancied to run well for Nicky Henderson and he is 6/4 without the favourite if you fancy him, but he is unproven over this three miles and that is the only doubt.
The Byrne Group Plate looks tough but I know Ferdy Murphy really fancies Divers who won the Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase at this meeting last year. Another positive is the fact that super jockeys agent Dave Roberts rang Ferdy up for the ride on behalf of a certain AP McCoy. So if you fancy the grey he is 6/1. I saw him schooling last week when Sky Sports News cameras went to his North Yorkshire yard and he looked relaxed and on good terms with himself.
The Kim Muir is the getting out stakes on Thursday and it looks wide open! I'm afraid I'll be waiting until declarations have been made to see what's what and which amateurs have been booked for the protagonists.
The Triumph Hurdle looks wide open but I quite fancy Sadler's Risk for Philip Hobbs. He looks a tough hardy little horse, the sort who can do well in a race like the Triumph. He is 11/2 joint favourite with Grumeti. The latter had a small problem last week when he got a nail in his foot but that shouldn't be an issue and he certainly has good form coming into this race for Alan King. However, I think this one will go to the Philip Hobbs trained juvenile who ran a decent trial when second to Baby Mix in the Adonis at Kempton last time out. Although he has to turn the form around with an impressive Baby Mix, he was staying on there and the hill at Cheltenham might just bring out the best in him.
The County Hurdle is another crazy handicap hurdle to sort out. Paintball is bidding for the £75,000 bonus on offer for winning the Imperial Cup last Saturday. However, he has to get into the race yet and there must be a doubt about that even with his 5lb penalty. So, if you want to back him to follow up wait until declarations.
The Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle can go to Boston Bob if he runs here (which at the time of writing seems likely). Willie Mullins' horse is 7/4 favourite. He has won all three starts for his new trainer having joined him from Howard Johnson. Although his Irish form is one testing ground he apparently hated it last time out and his pedigree suggests better ground will suit him well.
The Gold Cup has been full of pre-race drama and controversy with Kauto Star taking a fall at home and rumours last week surrounding the well being of Long Run. I believe in fairytales though and I wouldn't be surprised to see Kauto win his third Gold Cup. He looked in superb form with himself when galloping at Wincanton on Friday and Ruby's grin told the tale. Long Run hasn't excited me this season although I'm prepared to be proved wrong by the reigning champion. At 6/4 though I won't be backing Sam Waley-Cohen and Long Run to repeat their win. Kauto Star is now 7/2 and with each day that passes and positive news coming out of the Paul Nicholls stable his price contracts. The top two in the market are by far the classiest horses in the race and if they run to form the others are competing for place money. However, there is good money to be won by backing a horse each way and I wouldn't be surprised to see 25/1 shot What A Friend powering up the hill to snatch some of the minor money. He has run well in this race in the past for part owner Sir Alex Ferguson finishing fourth last year. Burton Port ran a great reappearance race behind Long Run at Newbury, but the 'bounce factor' is a concern as that was his first run for 15 months.
Cloudy Lane is the horse for me in the Foxhunters Chase. Donald McCain has booked Richard Harding to ride and that looks a good combination in this Amateurs Gold Cup, he's 7/1.
I have one I really fancy in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle. Street Entertainer represents Martin's son David and this is a race they love to win. He has already been well backed and is now 7/1 favourite, but he should run well and I won't moan if I back a 7/1 winner! The ground is right up his.....err street!
So the meeting concludes with the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase and this time it will be Nicky Henderson trying to win the race named after his father. Paul Nicholls saddles the favourite Toubab though who is 6/1 to win the closer. Tanks for That at 14/1 could be the one from the Henderson stable as he has a decent weight and has winning form here. It's a bit of a worry that he ran badly in this race last year although he ran as though something was amiss there and comes into this race in better form this time round.
Having written this preview I can see why Willie Mullins is 5/4 favourite with Sky Bet to be leading trainer at the festival. Nicky Henderson is next best at x/x and he has the most successful record of any trainer currently with a licence. It's hard to oppose Mullins despite his slightly restrictive odds.
The market to be top jock at the meeting is headed by Ruby Walsh at 1/2.
Sky Bet have also come up with their usual variety of imaginative special bets for the festival. Check out their website for a full list www.skybet.com
Women in Racing
It was International Women's Day on Thursday of last week and it would be great to see the girls making their mark at Cheltenham. Lucy Alexander is an emerging star in the conditional jockey ranks and of course the likes of Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh have got their names on the scoresheet at Cheltenham in the past. Girls are proving they can cut it in what was largely a man's world in the past and racing is one of the few sports that women compete as equals. With Hayley Turner on the flat and the aforementioned over jumps it's time we started talking about these ladies as 'jockeys' rather than 'female jockeys' as you would be hard pressed to pick them out from the boys and with the improved standards of riding and fitness they deserve to be treated as such.