It’s Horse Racing’s equivalent of Wimbledon (only there’s a different kind of racket to experience), their version in terms of prestigue of the FA Cup (but the main Cup of the festival is Gold), the 4 day festival where the best of the best fight it out to be, well, the best of the best, this is what most horse racing enthusiasts spend most of the year gearing towards, it’s the Cheltenham Festival 2013.
Last year saw Synchronised take home the main prize when AP McCoy steered him to a convincing win in a race that saw favourite Long Run finish back in 3rd, and Kauto Star making his final bow (which is interesting for a horse, as they don’t normally bow) when pulling up before he had even jumped half of the fences. Other big race winners included Rock On Ruby (who claimed the big prize of the Champion Hurdle on last year’s opening day), Finian’s Rainbow (Queen Mother Champion Chase) & Big Buck’s (World Hurdle), the latter not returning this time around after suffering an injury set back towards the end of last year, whilst there will be no retention of the Gold Cup for Synchronised after his untimely demise as a result of last year’s Grand National at Aintree.
Each day I shall blog up my thoughts on who to watch out for in each race, and I shall start off right about now with the big curtain raiser, the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle…
1:30 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
There will be a huge cheer when the starter lets them go to get the festival underway, probably the loudest cheer of the entire week, and in a bid to win once more on the opening day, Cinders And Ashes returns for Donald McCain following on from his success in last year’s Supreme Novices, however, his appearance comes in the Champion Hurdle nearly 2 hours after the opener, which shows just how much of a bench mark this race can be for future successes.
It’s no surprise really that the market is headed by the Nicky Henderson trained My Tent Or Yours (2/1). Last year Henderson broke two records, firstly, he had 7 winners in total during the festival (from 23 races), something that nobody had managed to pull over prior, and in doing so, he also became the most successful trainer in the history of the festival with 46 wins to his name, which is a full 6 wins more than anyone else, and a figure he is very likely to extend over the next four days. AP McCoy (who only managed to ride home two winners last year) takes to the saddle for Henderson and owner JP McManus in the opener, and it is definitely a chance for all three to get off to a decent start here. My Tent Or Yours goes into the race with the top rating in terms of both the Racing Post and Official Rating, and is running of a career high Racing Post rating of 170 following a 5 length victory last month at Newbury, and a 7 length success at Huntingdon in January, the former coming amongst Class 1 company, both of these were over the same distance and on similar Soft ground as is to be expected ahead of today’s start to the meeting, so given that it is clear to see why he is the one to take the beating here.
Any one of 11 other entrants will be hoping to defy the odds here, and from those I believe there are 5 who could mount a serious challenge for the title. Jezki (5/1) has won on all three starts on Soft ground, and all four starts over hurdles in the UK, and has been impressive on his last 3 outings over in Ireland. He claimed a 6 length victory when last seen at Leopardstown at the back end of 2012 so he is one who could really put a dent into the works if everything was to fall into place. Dodging Bullets (12/1) will be hoping to shoot into contention and bounce back from a disappointing third at Kempton back in December 2012. He is yet to be proven on Soft ground, but 2 wins from 3 on Good-Soft ground could be an indication that he may yet take to the ground well tomorrow, especially as both of those successes came over this course and distance back towards the end of last year.
Un Atout (7/1) is unbeaten in two stars over hurdles in the UK, and although he has only been seen three times since the start of 2012, all three occasions have been pretty convincing in terms of victories and margins, a 19 length success at Naas back in January was a sign enough that he has more than enough in the tank to challenge for the spoils, however, he is very much unproven on the ground as every one of his successes have come on heavier ground than is expected tomorrow, and whether or not that will be crucial will be evident tomorrow. Cause of Causes (40/1) is one such entrant who has found it difficult to cope with the change of ground, he claimed the spoils at both Navan and Ascot in the space of 20 days, but last time out he was a full 58 lengths behind My Tent Or Yours in that previously mentioned race at Newbury. If a bit of rain does manage to fall tonight in Gloucestershire then it could work in favour of him here at a decent price. Chmpagne Fever (8/1) doesn’t have the same worries though, he has three wins from 4 on Soft ground, not including success at Leopardstown last month in Grade 1 company, he has always been there or thereabouts during his career, and this should be no different really as even a damper ground could suit him based on a large margin of victory last year at Punchestown on heavy going, a decent price here could be attractive to each way backers.
Selection – It’s tough to oppose the favourite here given his pretty dominant displays, and should there not be a sudden overnight downpour then everything will be in place for My Tent Or Yours (WIN) to claim the spoils with an eye kept on Champagne Fever (EACH WAY) for the place claims
2:05 – Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase
Simonsig (4/6) will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Sprinter Sacre and claim the second race as an odds on favourite for Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty. It was the latter who last year got the festival up and running for both of them, and if Henderson doesn’t claim the opening spoils, then this race will provide him with a fantastic opportunity to get underway. There may be some stern competition here, but SImonsig has it all in his own hands (or hooves) considering that he has 7 wins from 8 over his career, the last two of which have been by margins of 35 & 49 lengths in Class 1 company, making him a very hard proposition to oppose.
Donald McCain will be one of the first to argue that though, he will feel that Overturn (4/1) has the potential to overturn the favourite here having prepared for the festival, starting his Chase career with three convincing victories of his own, all of which were on Good-Soft ground, and all by margins of 14 lengths or more. The only argument against that is that they didn’t come against top class company, and whether he can perform to the same level on the grand stage remains to be proven.
Arvika Ligeonnaire (8/1) could provide a surprise for Willie Mullins, he won by 11 lengths on soft ground against Grade 1 company over at Fairyhouse in December, and followed that up by beating one of his rivals here, Baily Green, again on soft groud, at Leopardstown. He is 2/2 on Soft ground in the UK and will be hoping to put his fall when leading over 4 out at Leopardstown at the end of January behind him by bouncing back with another strong performance here.
Majala (33/1) could be the other danger, but his best performances have come on heavier ground, so again, it would require quite a bit of rainfall before he would be worth considering, he has managed to win on his last 3 outings, although he was all-out when holding on to claim the spoils in his only success at this grade ahead of His Excellency at Wawrick last month, considering his rival from that day is 66/1 to claim the spoils here, it is hard to believe that he will be able to cling on once more if the battle was against Simonsig or Overturn, in what would be an overturn, considering that his jockey from that day was Jason Maguire.
Selection – It is hard to ignore the machine that is Simonsig (WIN) and he is very much justified of his favouritism, but a bit of rain could make Majala a decent shout to sneak second, other than that it should be a simple head to head battle between the first and second favourite.
2:40 – JLT Specialty Handicap Chase
This provides us with our first “wide open” race of the festival where there’s a whole host of entrants with decent claims at the victory, as shown by favourite Our Mick being as big as 7/1 to return the victor in this 24 runner field. The favourite does have decent claims, he was looking strong when he unseated rider Jason Maguire last time out at this course back in January, and he does have the ability to bounce back from that and finish the job amongst a large field here. Midnight Chase (25/1) could be a strong challenger here, however, he is another entrant who would probably be better suited to a bit of rain overnight, or even a very dry night, as his form over both Heavy ground and Good-Soft ground makes decent enough reading, but if the going does end up being as Soft as expected, then it could be too much of an ask for him considering he has only mustered up two places from 7 attempts on the soft. The same is also the case for Jadanli (50/1) who has every chance of reproducing the form that saw him beat 17 other runners at Gowran Park in January, but again, that only looks likely if the rain falls as he is yet to win on ground that hasn’t been testing. Quartz De Thaix (50/1) as an outsider may not mind either way though, he was disappointing at Haydock last month, and looked out of sorts here in January, eventually unseating Aidan Coleman after struggling throughout, but when he appeared here in December he was only marginally beaten by Master Overseer, beating one rival from this race, Planet of Sound, in the process.
Knockara Beau (16/1) has witnessed quite a lot of support since the field was declared, he is one that has managed victories on both the soft and heavier grounds, but has been out of sorts for a while failing to place on his last 3 appearances after looking very much outpaced, if by some miracle the 10 year old can find his best form again then he has every chance of claiming the spoils on what may be his last appearance at the festival. Hey Big Spender (33/1) is another one that it would take a brave man to ignore, providing he can avoid making blunders. 3 of his last four outings have seen him in a prominent position before fading away following mistakes, but if he can avoid making those mistakes then there is no reason why he cannot at least claim a placing in a decent sized field which could help turn his each way backers in to big spenders themselves.
Nadiya De La Vega (16/1) is the final entrant that may be worthy of support, he has looked like he could have produced a little bit more when running over a shorter distance and the up in trip here could spur him on to victory here, but that is very much unproven territory as he is yet to run over this or a similar distance
Selection – It’s a difficult one to call making this one of the races where a big priced winner is likely to be found, and that’s why I am going to lump for the outsider of the field Quartz De Thaix (EACH WAY)
3:20 – Champion Hurdle
The big race of the day is the Champion Hurdle and Rock On Ruby (5/1) will be hoping to retain his crown here for Harry Fry and Noel Fehily. Standing in his way though is the daunting task of beating Hurricane Fly (9/4) for a second year running. The champion has struggled to reproduce the same form that saw him win last year, he was beaten by 5 lengths by Oscar Whisky, and a neck into third by Thousand Stars at Aintree shortly after last year’s success, and was 8 lengths behind both Zarkandar and Grandouet when he returned to this course back in December. The favourite on the other hand has taken that defeat last year with a pinch of salt, he won by 12 lengths at Punchestown against 2 other runners following that defeat last year, and then won by 7 lengths in a 5 runner field at Leopardstown just before the turn of the year, he then bettered Thousand Stars and Binocular at the same course in January by 5 lengths to set him up nicely for his quest to land the Champion Hurdle. Binocular (10/1) could be one to watch on the back of that third placed finish, he went into the festival last year with a lot of promise under AP McCoy, and having finished 3 lengths clear of rival Countrywide Flame last time out he has at least got the prerequisites for a place here.
Selection – It is hard to oppose Hurricane Fly (WIN) doing what he should have done as an odds on shot last year. Grandouet is the only one of the market leaders who wasn’t in that race last year and has only had one ride since his sole win at this course in December 2011. Binocular (EACH WAY) has every chance of getting into the places, especially if the ground is slightly softer than it was here last year.
4:00 – Cross Country Handicap Chase
I have found it hard to find claims for a lot of runners in this field, including the two market leaders Arabella Boy and Outlaw Pete, Uncle Junior (8/1) and Bostons Angel (9/1) follow next in the market, but despite both having very strong claims (probably the latter more so than the former), they could be more suited to racing with a fair bit of rain overnight. Any Currency (14/1) is well worth watching out for, he pushed on for 4th at Catterick back in January and has placed on soft ground 7 times from 9 outings. Shakervilz (25/1) has won 2 from 3 outings on soft ground, and finished 5th behind Arabella Boy, Big Shu and Uncle Junior at Punchestown last month on heavier ground, but the softer touch here could be a leveler for the 10 year old.
Selection – Despite being beaten by both Arabella Boy and Outlaw Pete in the last year, Bostons Angel (WIN) should be fancied to rectify from second places at both Punchestown in November (Arabella Boy) and here in a Cross Country chase back in December (Outlaw Pete) to overturn the result against both an claim the spoils. SHAKERVILZ (EACH WAY) has shown he can race with the best of the field here on ground more suited to them, and he may well be worth an outside interest given the ground being more suited to him this time around
4:40 – OLBG Mares Hurdle
It has been a race dominated by Quevega (4/6) for the past 4 years, and her dominance over the field once more is such that she should easily be able to pick up a fifth successive crown, even more so if Willie Mullins is right in his belief that she is better this year than she was last year. Her only appearance since then saw her win by 5 lengths over at Punchestown last April, and it is difficult to see her failing against a field which contains 5 of those that she managed to dominate last year. Of those that she didn’t see then, Une Artiste (6/1) has won on 3 of her last 4 outings, including victory here last April, whilst one of her rivals which she beat on Heavy ground at Sandown in January, Kentford Grey Lady (10/1) pushed Quevega all the way in this race last year when beaten by 4 lengths, her 3 appearances since then have all been on Heavier ground where she has struggled to make much of an impression, but a switch back to more suitable ground could reap better rewards for her. The final one to consider is Swing Bowler (7/1) who was third last month at Newbury to My Tent Or Yours and Cotton Mill in a 21 runner contest on similar ground to Cheltenham after managing to win on the Soft at Musselburgh on New Year’s Day, a similar sort of performance to the standard of that run at Newbury may well leave Quevega well and truly stumped if she isn’t careful.
Selection – Quevega (WIN) has to be the NAP of the opening day, it’s very very hard to see past her winning for the fifth straight time here, but a bit of each way support could be advised for Swing Bowler (EACH WAY) who has been well supported in to 7/1 from 11/1 since the field was confirmed this morning.
5:15 – Novice Handicap Chase
After everybody curses their misfortunes for the one or two that let them down on a mammoth PlacePot dividend for the afternoon (which will probably be a lot of people given the 4 short priced favourites), it’s going to be somewhat of a quieter affair for the final race of the day, but this is another mammoth race in which the favourite, Colour Squadron, can be backed as large as 6/1 in places. Carlito Brigante (8/1) has been given the nod here than over the JLT earlier in the day but would probably need to find a bit more than he did when winning here in October if he wants to claim the spoils, which could all the more difficult considering he has failed to make much of an impact in his two outings since. Shangani (8/1) on the other hand put in two big races last month, winning by 6 lengths on the soft at Catterick, and 7 lengths on heavy ground at Sandown, and a reproduction of that form should see him get right into contention.
Donald McCain and Jason Maguire as always are a threat, and for the last they team up with Kruzhlinin (25/1) who would need some moisture if he is to produce his best form, which saw him win by 8 lengths at Kelso last month. Henderson sends out Rajdhani Express (28/1) which he will hoping will add to his winning total at Cheltenham, again though he will probably need a bit of rain if he is to get anywhere near his 34 length victory against 7 others at Kempton in December, he was poor after a blunder at the first when last seen here in January, but does have the potential to put in a big race at a large price, as does Restless Harry (50/1) who has put in big performances at this level before, and despite finishing 5th of 6 at Wetherby last time out, and 8th of 13 at Wawrick in January he could be a big danger if he finds the same form which saw him romp to an 11 length victory at Newbury at the end of last year.
Selection – Shangani (WIN) is probably the best of the market leaders here, but there’s a couple of big dangers lurking amongst the outsiders. All three of the aforementioned outsiders have it in them to come away with this one, but for me I am going to stick my neck out and say that Restless Harry (EACH WAY) is a decent shout for a top 4 finish at the very least considering his large odds on offer.
Well guys, that’s enough of an essay for today, come back tomorrow for my preview of Ladies’ Day when hopefully a few fillies will be able to turn some heads by getting their best legs out on show :