After a long twelve months, the wait for the best week in Horse Racing is finally over – the Cheltenham Festival is back! We kick off the week with my favourite day of them all – ‘Champion Day’ Tuesday. The feature race is of course the Grade 1 Champion Hurdle, where we have an outstanding renewal which includes the two Mares Apple’s Jade and Laurina, taking on Dual Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air. Elsewhere we have another three Grade 1 events, two fantastically competitive Handicaps, and one of my favourite races of the season – the four-mile National Hunt Chase. I’ll be attending Day 1 as usual, providing live updates from the track via my Twitter account @JakePriceTips. The recent rain has significantly eased the surface, and despite the dry winter, we look set to race on the softer side of good.
13:30 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m
The first race is of course the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, where I have already made two each/way selections via my Ante-Post articles. Nothing has changed my mind since tipping Elixir De Nutz and Grand Sancy, with both horses showing fantastic improvement this season, including a 1-2 in the Grade 1 Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown in January.
Colin Tizzard is looking for his first success in the race with the front runner Elixir De Nutz, and he looks to have an excellent chance having won over course and distance in a Grade 2 Trial at the November meeting. This fantastic looking grey comes into this as a Grade 1 winner, and he will clearly take some stopping. Tom O’Brien retains the ride on this five-year-old after his success at Sandown, and he races here fresh after a sixty-six-day break. A slight negative would be if a horse were to take our selection on for the lead, however he is a rock solid each/way option.
Paul Nicholls has won the Supreme twice, with Noland in 2006 and Al Ferof in 2011. The current leading UK Trainer has his best chance of making it three since Irving in 2014, with Grand Sancy a smart looking prospect. Harry Cobden takes the ride on this five-year-old, who recorded a career best last time out at Wincanton when winning the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle. This victory in open company clearly sets a very high standard, with the third placed Vision Des Flos winning the Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle subsequently. This run will be his twelfth over hurdles, so experience in combination with his inform yard will ensure he goes close.
One horse who does have a lot of form which ties into our two selections is Itchy Feet of the Olly Murphy yard. This five-year-old beat Grand Sancy in a Listed Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton in October – although it is worth noting that our selection was turned out just eight-days after his last success. This Kate and Andrew Brooks charge followed up by running in that aforementioned Grade 2 Supreme Trial here at Cheltenham in November, finishing one-and-a-quarter lengths behind Elixir De Nutz – where he had to give 5lbs to the Tizzard horse. Although the form ties in, I still think that our two selections have improved a lot since that run, and this Olly Murphy charge will be returning from a 114-day break. It’s also worth noting that Itchy Feet has never ran on ground softer than ‘Good’, which is a clear negative considering the rainfall we have had at Prestbury Park recently.
Looking at the top of the market, Al Dancer ran well in the rescheduled Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle at Ascot last month (off 141), but that race has never produced a Supreme winner – and I feel he is a vulnerable favourite in such a competitive field. Angels Breath looks a nice horse that will certainly appreciate a stiffer test here than his previous two starts this season, having won an Irish point-to-point over three-miles on ‘Soft to Heavy’ ground. His first start at Ascot saw him jump only four hurdles, and the equine flu really disrupted his preparation for this event. He clearly needed the run last time at Kempton when second to Southfield Stone, and Nicky Henderson has been very happy with him since. He is a danger in this race, but you do have to take a chance that he will be ready just seventeen days later. Mister Fisher is another useful type from Seven Barrows having won the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle at Haydock in January.
The main danger to our selections is the news that Klassical Dream has been declared for the Supreme, rather than the Ballymore as I had expected to happen. Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride this classy French import, and he is sure to be a gamble between now and the race. This Willie Mullins charge comes into the race as a Grade 1 winner at the Dublin Racing Festival when gamely seeing off stablemate Aramon, and the stiffer finish here should see him uphold that form. This five-year-old son of Dream Well has some top-class form in France as well as Ireland, having finished fourth in a Grade 1 three-year-old Hurdle race at Auteuil behind Master Dino. I thought that the longer Ballymore trip would be right up his street, however the unique test of the Supreme is also likely to suit and I would expect him to go close.
Note: Elixir De Nutz is now a Non-Runner, so Klassical Dream is the replacement bet.
Elixir De Nutz Each/Way @ 8/1 Klassical Dream @ 9/2
Grand Sancy Each/Way @ 12/1
14:10 – Arkle Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) – 2m
The Arkle Novices’ Chase is very competitive this season, with no clear superstar like in previous renewals – won by the likes of Altior and Douvan. Since Le Richebourg was ruled out due to injury, I had honestly been starring at the race blankly until I really started to delve into the form. I had previously put Hardline up for the JLT Novices’ Chase, but Gordon Elliot has rightfully chosen to run him here instead, which instantly drew my attention and an Ante-Post article duly followed.
This seven-year-old has a favourites chance in my eyes, having won a Grade 3 on just his third start over fences – convincingly beating Joseph O’Brien’s Us And Them by ten lengths. In fact, that winning margin was further than both times stablemate Le Richebourg beat that rival, which on collateral form clearly puts Hardline bang in contention for this. Gordon Elliot is a fantastic horseman – finishing last year as the Festival’s Top Trainer – and he saddled this son of Arcadio to a Grade 1 victory over Christmas when beating Getabird over 2m3½f at Limerick on Boxing Day. He showed a tremendous attitude to win that day, gamely staying on past the Willie Mullins charge – who albeit did make a mistake at the last. Hardline was tried over 2m5f at Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival in February and ran well to finish only five-and-a-half lengths third to La Bague Au Roi, but he clearly is better suited to the bare two-miles.
The fact that our selection does stay further however is an extremely useful quality for this contest, as there is sure to be a frantic pace set due to front runners such as Glen Forsa, Clondaw Castle, Duc Des Genievres, Knocknanuss and Ornua all lining up. We could see a complete burn-out from the front with so many horses taking each other on for the lead, similar to what happened with Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados last season – which even saw Brain Power finish ahead of the pair. Unless one of the front-runners is an absolute superstar, then I truly believe that you need a horse who will travel well in behind and finish their race up the hill strongly, which is clearly a style of racing that will suit both Davy Russell and Hardline perfectly. I’m confident our selection will put in another career best run here, which should be good enough to add a second Grade 1 to his CV. Connections have been equally confident with this horse on the Cheltenham Preview Night circuit, and I am really looking forward to seeing him on Tuesday.
Hardline Each/Way tipped @ 12/1 (Now 6/1)
14:50 – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 3m1f
The Ultima Handicap Chase looks a competitive renewal as ever this season, and the first horse that has drawn my attention is last year’s winner Coo Star Sivola. The headline fact about this Nick Williams charge is that he is only 3lbs higher than when running that career best, finally becoming a Cheltenham Festival winner after two previous attempts. Now a seven-year-old, this course and distance winner hasn’t exactly had a smooth journey back to Prestbury Park – pulling up in the Grade 1 Novices’ Chase at Aintree a month later before going on his Summer break. Returning to the track at Chepstow in October, it was clear that he was going to need the run as he was allowed to be sent off a 16/1 shot, and duly jogged around for eighth behind The Young Master – given a very easy time by usual partner Lizzie Kelly. His next start came at Sandown in November when contesting a Listed Intermediate Chase, where he showed much better form to finish ten-and-a-half lengths third to Welsh National winner Elegant Escape. He had one rival behind that day in Nicky Henderson’s Terrefort – however it came out after the race that he had finished lame that day.
Having shown an up-turn in form and being dropped 2lbs in the process, our selection was sent off a not unfancied 7/1 shot for a Grade 3 over course and distance in December. Tracking the leaders under Lizzie Kelly, Coo Star Sivola was going well until hitting the thirteenth fence, which really seemed to end his race as he was never travelling thereafter. Despite making some headway to four out, he weakened again after the third last and was left to complete in his own time. In the process of these disappointing runs however, connections can obviously celebrate the fact that their classy horse is back down to a mark just 3lbs higher than when winning this race last season, with Lizzie Kelly also claiming a valuable 3lbs. The horse has been given a break of 88 days since his last run, and he does usually come alive this time of year – having finished fourth in the Martin Pipe behind Champagne Classic (2017) and third in the Fred Winter behind Diego Du Charmil (2016). If this horse can return to the form he was in twelve months ago, then he looks an excellent each/way play.
My second selection comes from Ireland despite them having a particularly poor record in this race – the last Irish trained horse to win the Ultima was Dun Doire in 2006, ridden by Ruby Walsh for Tony Martin. Willie Mullins sends a horse with a fantastic chance this season however, in the shape of Up For Review. This lightly raced ten-year-old has clearly encountered problems in his career having only made his Chase debut at Gowran Park in February 2018, finishing second to stablemate Some Neck. He won on his second start over fences at the same track a month later by fifteen-lengths, before going onto the Irish spring festivals. His first effort came at Fairyhouse on the 1st April, finishing fourth behind Al Boum Photo in the Grade 1 Novices’ Chase, where he had horses such as Cheltenham Festival winner The Storyteller in behind. Out again just 26 days later, Up For Review struggled in the competitive Grade A Novices’ Handicap Chase at Punchestown, but was given a confidence booster in May when winning a Novice Chase at Killarney in comfortable style.
Not seen on the track this season until the Grade A Thyestes Handicap Chase at Gowran (due to the dry ground), this Willie Mullins charge ran a career best to finish third behind Gold Cup candidate Invitation Only. This run came on Soft ground after a 256-day break, and he was only beaten twelve-lengths by his impressive stablemate. In second that day was Alpha Des Obeaux, who has since gone close in the Grade 3 Bobbyjo Chase at Fairyhouse, and Punchestown Grand National Trial third General Principle was a further 10 lengths behind that day – our selection is 1lb better off with this Gordon Elliot charge here. The fact that Up For Review was only beaten by two rivals now rated 162 and 159 at Gowran on his seasonal reappearance clearly shows he is in good nick, and the British handicapper has given him a fantastic chance by not changing his mark of 146 from that fantastic effort. Another positive is that this was our selections first try at three-miles-plus over fences, so he is completely unexposed over the trip. Paul Townend retains the ride on this Irish raider, and I expect him to run a big race in a contest where conditions will suit.
Coo Star Sivola Each/Way @ 12/1
Up For Review Each/Way @ 14/1
15:30 – Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m½f
This season’s Champion Hurdle is going to be an absolute joy to watch, mainly thanks to the two Mares Laurina and Apple’s Jade taking their chance in this Grade 1 event. Apple’s Jade comes into this race after clocking up a hat-trick of Grade 1s over three different trips – the Hatton’s Grace (2m4f), Christmas Hurdle (3m) and Irish Champion Hurdle (2m). There’s no doubt that this Gordon Elliot Mare is an absolute superstar, completely blowing away her rivals on each occasion, but I’m keen to stick with the Dual Champion Hurdler in Buveur D’Air.
Nicky Henderson has already won this race seven times, and he will be looking to make it an eighth with his star hurdler on Tuesday. There’s no doubt that Buveur D’Air wasn’t at his best when narrowly beating Melon twelve months ago, but a wind-op clearly did the trick when completely destroying Samcro on the bridle in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in December. Obviously it has since come out that the Gordon Elliot charge had a lung problem, but the way that he won that day is still very visually impressive to watch. Disaster struck at Seven Barrows at Kempton on Boxing Day, where Buveur D’Air – sent off the 1/4 Fav – was beaten a short-head by stablemate Verdana Blue in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle. Everything went wrong for our selection that day however, making a huge blunder at the third last and then having to make his own running from the second last – which we’ve learnt isn’t the ideal way to ride this seven-year-old. Buveur D’Air had his preparation for this contest in the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month when easily seeing off Vision Des Flos on the bridle, and the fact that he didn’t have a hard race is clearly a positive – as he will need to give everything to become a three-times Champion Hurdle winner come Tuesday. The way that the race is likely to be run is surely going to suit JP McManus’ charge, with Apple’s Jade setting a fast pace for Barry Geraghty to aim at and deliver his mount up the hill.
As much as I am a fan of Laurina, this is clearly going to be the biggest test of her career and I would be extremely surprised if she is good enough to win a Champion Hurdle on her first start against the boys. She possesses a lot of talent, and I admire connections for giving this race a go, but I feel she is much too short in the betting. The way she jumped at Punchestown when winning the Listed Quevega Mares’ Hurdle at Puchestown last month is another worry, as she really gave her hurdles air time – a complete contrast to our selection who wings them every time. If she’s losing lengths at every hurdle, then it clearly will make her task even tougher under Ruby Walsh.
Away from the ‘big three’ in the betting, Espoir D’Allen looks to have a decent each/way chance having looked impressive in a hat-trick of Grade 3 victories in Ireland this season, and Sharjah is another horse who comes into this race in good form – however the rain will significantly decrease his chances. Melon is a horse who could easily bounce back to form at his beloved Cheltenham – but that would be the only straw you could clutch for after a very poor campaign so far.
Buveur D’Air @ 5/2
16:10 – Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m4f
With two of the best Mares in training going for the Champion Hurdle this season, the path has been left clear for Benie Des Dieux to become a dual Mares’ Hurdle winner. I highlighted this in an Ante-Post column last month when her price was a lot bigger, however I still have no reason to believe she won’t win – despite a somewhat troubled preparation. Willie Mullins had stated that he was going to run the Mare in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran last month, however after the Equine Flu breakout she needed a flu vaccination so missed this engagement. The Irish Champion Trainer is a genius with these Mares however, having won this contest nine times out of eleven runnings to date. This includes six victories with the superstar Quevega – five of which coming first time out. This is a tactic that Willie has used a number of times in the past – including with Penhill in the Stayers Hurdle last season. The trainer is an absolute genius, and I’d have no worries about Benie Des Dieux coming here fresh. Connections have been equally bullish about this unbeaten Mare, with Ruby Walsh labelling her as his best chance of a winner all week – something that is very hard to disagree with.
Benie Des Dieux tipped @ 3/1 (Now 10/11)
16:50 – Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase – 2m4f
The Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase is almost a Graded race these days, with just 7lbs between the top and bottom weight. Once the Irish Handicap marks were released I was instantly drawn to two raiders in A Plus Tard and Tower Bridge. You can find the Ante-Post article here.
Henry De Bromhead’s A Plus Tard looks to have plenty in hand here for this competitive affair, having won a Listed Handicap Hurdle at Auteuil before moving to Ireland in the ownership of Cheveley Park Stud. Second on Chase debut at Gowran before easily beating Arkle hopeful Duc Des Genievres at Naas, this five-year-old went close in a Grade 3 at Punchestown on his last start in January when beaten by Winter Escape on ground which was quicker than ideal. The rain we have had will clearly suit this Rachael Blackmore ride, and he looks very well handicapped off 144. I would expect him to go close here before stepping into Graded company for the rest of his Spring campaign.
Tower Bridge is another interesting contender, this time from the Joseph O’Brien yard. A Grade 1 winner over Hurdles at the Dublin Racing Festival last year, this son of High Chaparral ran another good race when fifth in the Albert Bartlett at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. This season he has tried his hand at fences, and despite his first two starts not giving you much confidence, he jumped much better last time out on yielding to soft ground at Gowran when chasing home Duc Des Genievres. Rated 143 over Hurdles, the UK handicapper has given him 141 for this, and regular jockey J J Slevin takes the ride. He’s another who will enjoy any further rain should it fall.
Of the remainder, the biggest danger looks to be Riders Onthe Storm for Tom Taaffe. This six-year-old ran behind Mengli Khan on debut over fences before beaten twenty-two lengths in that Grade 1 at Limerick won by Hardline on Boxing Day, but comfortably got off the mark at Punchestown last month over two-miles in a Beginners. A slight worry with this horse however is that his record going further than the minimum trip is sixth (beaten 36 lengths) and third (beaten 22 lengths). If he does stay the trip here however, Brian Hughes is surely going to get a good spin on this 140 rated gelding. Highway One O One is another horse I have a lot of time for, however carrying top weight won’t be an easy task.
A Plus Tard Each/Way tipped @ 16/1 (Now 8/1)
Tower Bridge Each/Way tipped @ 14/1 (Now 9/1)
17:30 – National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase – 3m7½f
The last race of the day is one of my favourites of the season – the four-miler. Won in the past by the legendary Tiger Roll, this race has become a lot classier in recent years – with Native River even finishing second in 2016 before winning the Gold Cup last year. This season we are set for another classy renewal, with Nicky Henderson’s Ok Corral leading the market and looking a very solid option. Already rated 153 after wins at Plumpton and Warwick, he will clearly take some stopping if staying the extreme trip under top Amateur Derek O’Connor. Ballyward also comes into this after only having two runs over fences, but for the same connections as last year’s winner Rathvinden. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, this seven-year-old was only beaten a short-head on Chase debut before landing a Grade 3 at Naas – where the second Chris’s Dream has franked the form since.
Despite the top two in the betting looking solid, I am willing to take a chance on Paul Nolan’s Discorama with another brilliant Amateur in Barry O’Neill aboard. A winner on Chase debut at Naas in November, he looked every inch a stayer under Bryan Cooper – getting up in the final 100 yards under a fantastic ride. His next start came at Fairyhouse in December when contesting the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase, won by Delta Work. The 2m4f trip that day was clearly on the short side, but our selection still ran with credit to finish fifth in a hot contest. Given a break until the end of January, Discorama was last seen when running in that aforementioned Grade 3 Novice Chase at Naas. Although the bare form of the race suggests Ballyward won easily by eleven lengths, this Paul Nolan six-year-old was coming with a brilliant late run to challenge the eventual winner, before crashing out at the final flight. If you watch the race back then you can easily argue that Discorama was starting to get the better of the argument that day, and I am very willing to give him a chance to beat Ballyward stepped up to four-miles. Another positive worth pointing out is that his son of Saddler Maker travelled over for the Martin Pipe at last year’s Festival, running really well to finish second behind Blow By Blow. This is an extreme test of any horse, and if putting in a clean round I feel Discorama will go very close.
It’s interesting that Jamie Codd will ride Ben Pauling’s Le Breuil here, and another one who is eye-catching at a bigger price is Jessie Harrington’s Whisperinthebreeze – who won a Grade A handicap at the Dublin Racing Festival in very comfortable style last month.
Discorama Each/Way @ 7/1
Good luck! – Jake Price