Racing Expert & Columnist
Alex Hammond's Cheltenham Festival blog
Last Updated: 14/03/17 8:40am
Sky Sports News HQ presenter Alex Hammond goes through all the main races at the Cheltenham Festival in her latest blog.
SKY BET SUPREME
The race that really gets the party started. The question is: will it start it with a bang?
At the time of writing, running plans are up in the air for a couple of the entries including Neon Wolf; a horse I'll be backing whether he runs here or in the Neptune.
In the run up to the festival, the chat has all been about Melon, but although he won his maiden hurdle doing handsprings, I'm happy enough to take him on despite the fact he is the Willie Mullins buzz horse.
In fact, of the Mullins entries, I'm keen on Bunk Off Early who was way too keen in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle won by stablemate Bacardys, but he still ran well to finish second. The drop back to two miles will be ideal for him and he is better value at 6/1 with Sky Bet.
There are cases to be made for quite a few of the horses entered and it looks a quality renewal; what a race to start to four-day spectacular. Please let Harry Fry run Neon Wolf in the Neptune and not in this opening race. Don't forget that Sky Bet are offering money back as a free bet if you lose on the first race every day at Cheltenham.
Altior…over and out!
ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE
Tom George has kept his string in great form and his Singlefarmpayment can run well off a decent weight.
By all accounts, this horse has taken some getting to know by George since he joined him from Tom Lacey, but they appear to have got to the bottom of him now and were rewarded with a win at this track on New Year's Day.
He was in the process of running a big race when brought down back at Prestbury Park at the end of January and runs off the same mark on Tuesday. He's 8/1 with Sky Bet.
I've been flying the Buveur D'Air flag for some time and now isn't the time to change my mind. It's disappointing that the race is missing some of its stars, but it makes for a competitive contest and Nicky Henderson's six year old has reverted from chasing with style.
He is quick, slick and talented and should run a big race. I have one proviso: he likes soft ground, so I hope it's soft enough for him. As you know, I love Vroum Vroum Mag and if Willie Mullins decides to let her take her chance here she should run a big race if anything like up to her best. Buveur D'Air is 4/1 with Sky Bet and Vroum Vroum is at 7s.
This has to be Limini's race for the taking. I'm sure Vroum Vroum will run in the Champion and the fact Limini wasn't supplemented for that race means she is a short price to win this one. She's currently 5/4 favourite.
I love the four miler and it invariably throws up some very smart young chasers. A few horses keep being bandied around for this, one of which is David Pipe's Champers On Ice. Currently an 8/1 shot with Sky Bet, he has plenty in his favour if they go this route with him.
You could certainly do worse than back this horse, who has only run nine times in his life and is yet to be tested over a trip this far. He was beaten by an exciting young horse called American (trainer Harry Fry could be set for a good week) at Warwick on his penultimate start and that was no disgrace.
American would be a horse to keep on side if he turns up in the RSA and if the ground has enough dig in it as he is fragile and prefers cut in the ground. Champers On Ice ran a funny race at Cheltenham last time out, but he was staying on and he should find improvement for this marathon trip.
CLOSE BROTHERS NOVICES' HANDICAP CHASE
A really competitive tight handicap, but I'm sticking with Dan Skelton's Value At Risk.
There should be enough ease in the ground for him to run well and he's a horse that has gone well fresh in the past, so I'm not concerned that he hasn't run since October.
He has got his act together now at his obstacles having made a sketchy start to his chasing career, he's in good hands and off his current mark could be well handicapped. He's 8/1 with Sky Bet.
NEPTUNE NOVICES' HURDLE
If I could put this up in flashing lights (or neon), I would. Neon Wolf for Harry Fry is my top tip. I implore Harry Fry to take this route and not run in the Sky Bet Supreme as it looks the easiest option for this embryonic chaser.
He's a long-term prospect for his talented trainer and hopefully he can get a Cheltenham win on his CV this year before going on to great things in the future over fences.
He's now only 13/8 favourite given the news that Finian's Oscar misses the race, but he's solid for me. It seems we'll know on Sunday morning where Neon Wolf runs and it looks like this is his most likely target.
This Grade One looks fascinating with several horses in with a shout. On my shortlist are 100/30 favourite Might Bite who crashed out when looking set to hack up in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton over Christmas and then had a nice confidence boost to win easily at Doncaster last month.
If the ground is soft enough, Acapella Bourgeois, who flew home for Sandra Hughes in a Grade Two novice chase at Navan last time, will run a big race but it was a horse I mentioned a moment ago, American for Harry Fry who I had been going to take a chance on prior to his withdrawal; back to the drawing board!
It's not going to take me long to tell you what I fancy for this. Yes, it's often a dreadful race to try and find the winner of, but this year there looks to be a blot on the handicap in the shape of Tombstone.
Gordon Elliott's horse is a class act and off a mark of 149 could be chucked in. He's 5/1 clear favourite with Sky Bet and you'll see worse favourites than him during the week.
He beat Stayers' Hurdle fancy Jezki in a Grade Three at Gowran last time and last year's Sky Bet Supreme fourth had the option of being supplemented for the Champion Hurdle, but they decided to stick with the handicap route.
His biggest threat comes in the shape of stablemate Automated who is Sky Bet's 10/1 second favourite and he looks a great bet for each way punters.
Everyone loves a duvet day, well today is even better, it's Douvan day! He looks the most solid horse of the week, but at 1/4 he isn't backable.
He's one to put in accumulators though and should be a banker. Let's just hope we see the championship performance that we are expecting from Willie Mullins' star.
God's Own could be one to back in the market without Douvan and he's currently 3/1 with Sky Bet. He has the option of the Ryanair too, but I think Tom George is leaning towards the Champion Chase with the rest of the season in mind.
CROSS COUNTRY CHASE
Way too difficult to get serious about, but Enda Bolger does little wrong with his runners in these races and he's represented by Cantlow, Auvergnat, Quantitaviseeasing, Colour Squadron and Love Rory.
He won't have things all his own way though and it should be a good spectacle.
FRED WINTER H'CP HURDLE
Dinaria Des Obeaux is an exciting filly for Gordon Elliott and she is one to keep on side in this ultra competitive juvenile handicap. She was an impressive winner on her debut for Elliott in a maiden hurdle having won her only start in France and wasn't disgraced in Grade One company the time after that behind stablemate Mega Fortune who goes for the Triumph.
She got back to winning ways in a Grade Three at Fairyhouse last month, albeit she was awarded the race in the steward's room after a narrow defeat and being hampered by first past the post Ex Patriot.
She's a 10/1 shot with Sky Bet for Wednesday's race and at that price offers some each way value. Noel Fehily really fancies his mount, 6/1 favourite Divin Bere. He beat leading Triumph fancy Master Blueyes at Huntingdon on his debut for Nicky Henderson giving weight to the runner up, that looks a very good performance.
Carter Mckay is Sky Bet's 3/1 favourite for the bumper for a man who has an impressive record with his runners in this race; Willie Mullins. He cost £160,000 last April and is owned by Pearl Bloodstock and it looks like money well spent so far as he has won both his bumpers for new connections to add to one second place finish and one win in the point-to-point field.
Warren Greatrex could saddle the best of the Brits in the shape of Western Ryder who is a 7/1 poke. He couldn't give masses of weight to Daphne du Clos last time out and wasn't disgraced in defeat that day at Newbury. He's an each-way price at the moment.
If Unowhatimeanharry wins the Stayers' Hurdle, it will be a huge achievement for Harry Fry, who has improved him beyond all recognition.
Just a reminder that Sky Bet are offering money back as a free bet if you lose on the first race every day at Cheltenham.
JLT NOVICES' CHASE
This race centres around Yorkhill and whether his jumping can hold up sufficiently to demonstrate what he's capable of between the fences to allow him to win. If none of that makes sense, basically he has a massive engine and if the fences don't get in the way he will win. He's a real livewire, but he doesn't appear to have that natural ability to jump a fence well.
It's something that doesn't matter over hurdles because they can skim over the flights without bending their backs. Over fences it's a different story and he has looked awkward at times when he gets in close or scares himself by standing off. Ruby Walsh will have to be at his brilliant best to get this horse round clear, but if he does he should win and at 11/8 is it worth taking the chance? That's down to you, but I believe he is the best horse in the race.
Politologue is an interesting one for Paul Nicholls who fancies his chances of winning with this three time winner over fences. At 11/2 he is a more attractive price, but is he good enough to beat Yorkhill? That's the conundrum.
PERTEMPS FINAL H'CP HURDLE
For Good Measure looks the type that has been campaigned with this race in mind all season and with Philip Hobbs' horses in such good form he's one I like in a difficult race to find the winner in. He's 10/1 and appeals as an each-way selection in a red hot contest.
The only negative surrounding Un De Sceaux for this race is the likelihood that the ground will have dried out a bit too much for him to have his optimum conditions. However, I spoke with his owner on At The Races on Friday and their confidence is high. His 9/4 price isn't going to make us rich, but he has so much going for him I expect him to win. The trip at Cheltenham should suit him well and will give Ruby time to sort him out at his fences.
Alary is a huge price (25/1) for a horse that was considered Gold Cup class when he came over from France. However, he's taking a long time to adapt to the British way of racing and has been expensive to follow since joining Colin Tizzard. He'll make his mark at some point that's for sure.
I mentioned earlier that Harry Fry could have a superb week and if Unowhatimeanharry wins this race, it will be a huge achievement for the West Country trainer who has improved him beyond all recognition. He won the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle at last year's festival and he goes from strength to strength. He's going to be hard to beat and as much as I'm a big fan of Cole Harden, on the face of it he has to improve to repeat his win of two years ago although drying ground will be in his favour. The favourite is 5/4 with Sky Bet and I don't think they are being stingy!
BROWN ADVISORY PLATE H'CP CHASE
This is a tough race to find the winner of with big priced winners often the norm. Venetia Williams is a trainer with a good record in it and of her entries I like Tango De Juilley who hasn't run since finishing second in this same contest 12 months ago.
I wrote about the horse in my blog before the Greatwood Gold Cup giving him a strong shout out, but he wasn't declared and of all the trainers with a licence Williams isn't one I'd be worried about getting one ready after a year off the track.
This horse will be finely tuned and runs off just a 1lb higher rating this time round. Sky Bet have him at 20/1 and I'll be backing him to into a place once again.
KIM MUIR H'CP CHASE
Jockey bookings are worth taking note of with the leading Irish amateurs usually snapped up for the fancied runners and Jamie Codd has been booked by Gordon Elliott for Squouateur.
However, James King is a very good amateur who is really making a name for himself in the UK; he's particularly good over fences. He is booked to ride Neil Mulholland's Southfield Royale once again having ridden him in the Sky Bet Chase at the end of January.
You may remember that I really fancied the horse to win that handicap chase, but he was the last to finish there on his first run since April. That should have brought him on a tonne and last year's National Hunt Chase fourth has plenty going for him, not least a mark 6lb lower than at Doncaster. I'm hoping to recoup my Doncaster losses here.
MARES' NOVICES HURDLE
Warren Greatrex has a superb chance of winning this race with La Bague Au Roi. She worked well in a racecourse gallop at Newbury last weekend and is on very good terms with herself after a winter break. She's 13/2 and faces some stiff opposition from Ireland, but she hasn't done anything wrong with her only defeat coming when she was unwell.
There's a very short priced favourite for the Friday opener in Defi Du Seuil who was a 7/4 shot at the time of writing. Philip Hobbs has his team in tip top form and that may prove to be a great bet to start the final day. He's done nothing wrong so far and I can see him stretch his unbeaten run to seven.
COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE
Another tricky little devil to sort out with some horses having multiple entries. Dan Skelton won this race last year with Superb Story and has North Hill Harvey this year. He beat Modus in the Greatwood Hurdle at this track back in November and has been off since. He has been raised 8lb for that. He has obvious claims.
This is a race I'll be keener to look at on the day when I know what conditions are like and who has been declared.
ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES' HURDLE
There's a huge buzz around Death Duty for this Grade One, but he's another at skinny odds. He's 9/4 favourite with Sky Bet and it's plain to see why with an unbeaten record over hurdles including in a Grade One last time out. The step up in trip will suit and he's got strong form, but he seems mighty short. Having said that there have been a few short-priced winners of this race over the years, namely Black Jack Ketchum, Wichita Lineman and Bobs Worth and you get the impressive this horse falls into that category. He is certainly the one they all have to beat with Gordon Elliott saying he's the most talented hurdler he's had through his hands at this stage in his career. He's a three mile chaser in the making.
For me, this centres around Native River and Djakadam. It's been well documented about how this race has fallen apart, but it still presents a fascinating conundrum.
I'm sticking by my view that Cue Card won't win as that's been my stance for years! His trainer Colin Tizzard has what looks like a perfect Gold Cup candidate in Native River though and I backed him some time ago. He's now 7/2.
In fact, Sky Bet can't separate Cue Card, Native River and Djakadam at the head of the market; it will be interesting to see which of the trio goes off favourite.
I've had a sentimental bet on Djakadam and it may not be a foolish heart ruling head decision. This horse has had an uninterrupted preparation for the race this season which he didn't last year and despite that he has still finished second in the last two renewals. He has been well backed. Sizing John has good claims for Jessie Harrington although he is unproven over this trip.
I'd normally body swerve having to sort out the Foxhunters, but On The Fringe deserves to be 11/8 favourite for Enda Bolger. There is a lot of confidence behind this horse who has an outstanding record in the race. He has won it for the past two years and has run very well on the other two occasions he has run in it. He showed his well being when second to Foxrock at Leopardstown in a Hunters Chase. With that winner ineligible to run here the race should be his for the taking with Jamie Codd in the saddle.
MARTIN PIPE H'CP HURDLE
Another fancied horse has been ruled out of the festival and a few ante-post vouchers were ripped up on Saturday afternoon with the news The Storyteller misses this race through injury. Willie Mullins is a trainer to follow in this tough handicap and it will be interesting to see what he runs on Friday. Watch this space.
GRAND ANNUAL H'CP CHASE
The getting out stakes if you're still standing! Again we are still a little way away from knowing who lines up in this, but if Starchitect runs for David Pipe I'll be interested (he has three entries throughout the week). This lightly raced novice chaser won impressively at Ayr last time and although the runner up let the form down on Saturday, he won in great style and is a classy individual. He has festival form having finished fourth in the Fred Winter in 2015 and then fifth in last year's County Hurdle last year and his recent win should have given him a timely fillip. He's an 8/1 shot.