On Tuesday the four days of chaos and heartache, thrills and spills that is better known as the Cheltenham Festival will begin in earnest, once the starter raises his flag to start the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at 1.30pm. For many the Festival itself began months ago as racing enthusiasts pencilled in their Antepost bets and started to look at the racing odds for some of the more profound races scheduled.
Betting early whilst being potentially more profitable cannot remove the incentive of opening up a race card on the morning of each day and selecting those last minute winners. The anticipation as the elite performers stroll around the parade ring in a consummate fashion we begin to hope that the pre race selection is looking supremely calm but not asleep. A slight edginess does not go amiss at this stage as we begin to sweat up in an impatient fever, hoping that nothing is able to baulk our prayer for an early Festival result.
DAY ONE HIGHLIGHT:
Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)
STAR OF THE DAY:
A Listed winner on the flat and ten time grade one winner over hurdles at distances between 2m and 2m 4f. Considerably talented but a very delicate horse.
DID YOU KNOW?
It is 22 years since trainer Dermot Weld enjoyed success with his sole Festival winner to date Rare Holiday in the 1990 Triumph Hurdle. He has one fairly useful recruit at a short price on Day One of the Festival but with a record so poor it could be worth swerving his Gallileo's Choice for win only purposes.
GRADE ONE ANALYSIS
1.30 - William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1)
This renewal could prove to be one of the most competitive for years and a blanket finish looks quite possible despite this race not being a handicap. So many come into the event in good form with the current favourite Darlan having fallen last time out it looks feasible that one of those who have yet to reveal their true class could prosper.
On all known form already shown up to TEN runners have claims and it is when a race seems so open like this that I venture further down the lists to find an apparent no hoper. One of those at a bigger price with huge connections is ALLURE OF ILLUSION trained by Willie Mullins.
The offer from Skybet who pay 1/4 odds on FIVE places also makes the selection a worthy consideration at a fair price of 25-1. He is only a lightly raced individual, his best days surely still ahead of him, with considerable talent as he finished third in the Aintree bumper last season having only raced once previously.
Over timber he ran Joxer close on his hurdling debut despite that rival already having experience over the smaller obstacles, before finishing in equal first place last time over further when forced to make his own running. That run did not suit but he was still able to finish in front which showed the possible class he might possess when greeted with a testing two mile trip over a galloping stiff track like Cheltenham.
When a horse has not been able to show the extent of its qualities on their previous run it often enhances the prospective odds and in these exact same circumstances I believe, with so many of the top performers looking beatable, it could pay to side with the Mullins improver.
My instinct is that the Irish will power home in this race and make the UK Novice hurdling form look almost derisory. Hopefully the Irish horse finishing in front, is Allure Of Illusion.
2.05 - Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase (Grade 1)
Sprinter Sacre will be odds on for his assault on this 2m 1f Novices Chase after an awe inspiring preparation which culminated in a recording breaking performance at Newbury when last seen on the track. Jockey Barry Geraghty remains very generous in his praise about an animal he suggests "is the best" he has ridden yet. Moscow Flyer would possibly argue that sentiment but having shipped his jockey off on five occasions there is no doubt, that at least, Sprinter Sacre is a more clever and speedy horse.
What we know about Cheltenham though is that it is not all about speed and horses with more enhanced traits of stamina can be seen to good effect on the uphill approach to the finish. Sprinter Sacre tied up last season after a mistake at the last to lose out in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the horse who was able to gain an advantage that day was rival Al Ferof.
Al Ferof has himself remained progressive this season with an unbeaten record in Novice company before he stepped up his challenge to fight ready made and experienced chasers in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot last time out. He could only muster a third place in that event behind two horses with more experience but it illustrated that he may need more time before he is a definite challenger to his elders. Back in Novice company he is sure to test the speedy assets of Sprinter Sacre and should that rival make any errors he will be waiting in behind to take what advantage of them he can.
CUE CARD could pose an intriguing threat to the front two at the head of the market after steadily improving each time he has faced a fence this season. It is evident that he still is prone to jumping mistakes which if repeated here will cause him problems when trying to make all. I still feel that with a clear round he will be a massive threat and judging by the way he will his race he could be worth backing pre race with a lay inrunning at half his expected odds. On all known form and due to his liking for Cheltenham he will not be far away and a place is the least that connections will be expecting.
Menorah is unproven in my view over fences having reverted back to hurdles initially after a blunder on his chasing debut. Not quite amongst the very elite over hurdles connections chose the chasing route to see what prizes could be won, though with the current crop of Novice chasers making their marks I doubt any big race wins in this sphere will be on the horizon in the near future. There is no doubt he loves the Cheltenham track but his erroneous jumping will cause him problems over the larger obstacles and whilst being a viable place option I prefer Cue Card to carry my each way money in a race that it is difficult to find any real value.
3.20 - Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (Grade 1)
A spectacle awaits in what is a favourite race of many, as reigning champion Hurricane Fly returns to the UK having won this race on these shores on his first visit to this country last season. There is reason to believe he may be denied a repeat win in this race having only been seen on course once so far this season compared to the three outings he had as preparation for the same race last year.
The ratings guru's were keen to give Hurricane Fly a freakishly high rating for his only racecourse appearance in heavy ground for the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. To me the rating was suspiciously based on his name rather than his actual performance as the heavy ground would have hardly been to the liking of those in behind. With Oscars Well in second place still yet to register a Graded race victory outside of Novice company it is unknown just how well he ran and with such short odds available it makes sense to look elsewhere for what will be a far more competitive race.
Paul Nicholl's saddles three runners in total with two on paper looking contenders in the form of Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby. Both though do lack experience and whilst they are both talented and open to further improvement it cannot be ignored that racing experience often proves the key to victory in a race where one mistake is the end of your race. Between them they have competed in a total of just TEN hurdles races and with nine of the last ten winners having previously competed individually at least this number of times their ability to score a winning result is more remote than their present odds suggest.
One though would be unwise to exclude them from possible calculations in a finish due to the training prowess of Paul Nicholl's who often performs outrageous training feats to get his horses to score. In such an elite race these trends exist for a reason and with the trainer never having previously won a Champion hurdle his two stars look more place contenders than probable winners in my eyes.
A possibility exists that BINOCULAR could take advantage of the conditions his rivals face and score a second Champion Hurdle victory to coincide with his victory of two seasons ago. That day he ran a commanding race and unfortunately was unable to defend his crown last term after a lacklustre campaign. Connections feel he is on the verge on becoming back to his best and after a routine preparation where he has improved with each run he could prove his current odds to be ridiculous in comparison with those of the favourite.
Last season Hurricane Fly was pushed relatively hard by Peddler's Cross who himself is not a superstar at the highest level in my view. Third place went to Oscar Whisky who would have much preferred an intermediate trip of at least 2m 4f to show what he was fully capable of. With these considerations in my mind I have little doubt that this renewal will be tougher for Hurricane Fly to command and with the lack of racing activity going into the race I take my chance with the massively talented but unreliable Binocular to gain a small margin victory under the guidance of a masterful ride from jockey Tony McCoy.
Any Sublimity style market moves pre race could make us all look daft and if any encouragement is given to the chances of Overturn he could realistically compete for a place at fairly large odds behind the big two.
SUMMARY OF THE REST OF DAY ONE:
The 2.40PM JLT Speciality Handicap Chase (Grade 3) is a race I have already previewed and studied having placed small amounts Antepost on Tullamore Dew (25-1) and Fruity O'Rooney (33-1). You can remind yourself of my initial preview by clicking HERE.
Since the end of last month a market move has persisted on TULLAMORE DEW who has creditable course form and looked ready to test himself over this distance for the first time at the track he loves. Dry ground will be a benefit and help him stay the trip so if they fail to over water the track ahead of the festival I expect him to make a significant impression and gain his first course win.
SIZING AUSTRALIA has claimed my monies to retain his title in the 4.00PM Glenfarclas Handicap Chase (Cross Country). His trainer has been keen to retain a competitive handicap mark and the horse has yet to show his true form this season having been kept to hurdling to protect his rising rating. Now a 10yo this could be the year he shows his best form at the venue on a track that consistently provides experience with rewards.
There are several high class rivals in opposition including two fierce types from the Willie Mullins stable who head the weights. Uncle Junior and Scotsirish both have class and experience of this unique circuit which should give them excellent chances. However it is my belief the Andrew Lynch partnership aboard Sizing Australia will prevail and give his talented jockey an early score on the top jockey leaderboard.
Trainer Henry De Bromhead recently offered his expectations ahead of the race by reminding punters of one important fact. He said "He loves the course and he knocked six seconds off the record last year. It's the type of race where horses often repeat a good run."
The 4.40PM OLBG Mares' Hurdle (Grade 2) is the first of two non terrestrial televised races that round off what is hopefully a profitable day one of the Festival. It would be a mammoth shock should Quevega not provide favourite backers with victory for the fourth year in succession. She is a grade above her sex at trips of between 2m 4f and 3m, but when she is keeps collecting the prizemoney connections see little point in testing her skills against the boys.
From a betting perspective this race is more inclined to reward forecast punters, but at this moment I have no firm opinions on which horse is likely to run the closest behind in second. There are several progressive sorts and Unaccompanied remains entered though she is expected to shy away from a confrontation against her more elite rival. This will possibly be a bet that I provide via Twitter closer to race time so keep an eye out on my Twitter page to see which also ran can be included in the forecast bet.
The final race of the day is the 5.15PM Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Handicap Chase (Listed Race) where once more I hold a small Antepost ticket on the Donald McCain runner CHARMINSTER. An intriguing recruit to chasing who was ridden to get the trip on run try over C&D last time at the end of January. He made some generous mistakes that day and did well to close on the leaders at the business end of the race, demonstrating that he will have no problems staying on up the hill given the correct ride.
If he can improve his jumping then he could be a conscious outsider worth a small play. However this might prove to not be my final selection as there are many hopefuls in the race where the betting market will no doubt prove an informative tool closer to the off. That is providing any money remains in the bank after the gluttonous portions of class racing we have seen by this late stage in the day.