Cheltenham Festival Preview: Day One

To be honest without travelling up to Cheltenham today it just feels like any other Monday, but the Cheltenham Festival is finally here, and we’ve got to make the most of what will hopefully be 4 Days of quality National Hunt action. Day 1 looks a pretty tricky punting day if you’re not into backing short-priced favourites, but there is still plenty of value to be had – so hopefully I can steer you in the right direction! For each Day I will be posting my selections on this website between 17:00 and 18:00, so be sure to come back tomorrow for all my Day 2 thoughts. Best of luck if you’re following, and be sure to follow me on Twitter @JakePriceRacing for live updates throughout the day.

13:20 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m½f

With only 8 runners lining up, this is clearly a disappointing renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – but there are still a few nice Horses to consider. Appreciate It heads the market for Willie Mullins, and you’d be hard pressed to find many stones to throw at him. Last year’s Champion Bumper runner up has so far enjoyed a flawless Hurdles campaign; starting off by winning his Maiden Hurdle at Cork without coming off the bridle – despite having to see off the useful Master McShee (143). He’s since landed both of the 2m Grade 1 Novice Hurdles at Leopardstown, beating Irascible by 9 lengths on the 27th December, before then beating Ballyadam by 3.25 lengths at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. In order to justify getting him beat many punters will cite the fact that a 7yo hasn’t won the Supreme since Captain Cee Bee in 2008, or that he was supposed to be the Mullins’ 2m4f Horse until Ferny Hollow got injured – but the bare facts are it is all about his short price. If you’re the type of punter who likes playing Horses less than 2/1 then go ahead and back him – I’m certainly not going to put you off because on all known form he clearly has a great chance.

The one slight question mark you do have to consider with Appreciate It is the drying ground however, as he hasn’t won over Hurdles on anything quicker than Soft yet. Last season he did of course win his Grade 2 Bumper at Leopardstown on Yielding (Good-to-Soft) but looking back at that form you would’ve expected him to win in the manner he did. The ground actually poses questions for the majority of this select field, with Ballyadam another Horse who hasn’t raced on anything better than Soft since winning his Maiden Hurdle at Down Royal in October. I do think that Ballyadam has the potential to finish a bit closer to Appreciate It, but you’re not getting much of a price to compensate the leap of faith – especially as he will be our first gauge on how the Cheveley Park Horses have coped with their late stable changes. Metier is the next with doubts about the ground as he won in bottomless conditions at Newton Abbot on debut and then again Sandown last time – but the form of his victories just isn’t good enough to win a Supreme, as he has merely beaten what I consider to be the ‘middle-class’ Novice Hurdlers (rated between 120-136).

One Horse who may actually improve for some quicker ground however is Willie Mullins’ second-string in Blue Lord, who won on Good ground in France before joining Closutton. Given the standard long break to acclimatise to life in Ireland, Blue Lord had his first start for Willie at Punchestown in November, where he stayed on strongly over the 2m trip to get up late in the day. That run was promising considering the majority of Willie’s Horses were needing their first run of the season at that time, but perhaps owing to the way he stayed on, connections decided to aim him at the 2m4f Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle on his next start. Travelling into the race much better this time, Blue Lord ran well when second behind Ballymore favourite Bob Olinger (150), but the general consensus was that he’d be better suited to dropping back in trip to 2m. He had his first chance to prove that last time out at Leopardstown when finishing a staying-on third behind Appreciate It and Ballyadam, and considering his pretty unpromising position heading over the second last it was some effort to finish as close as he did. With only 8 runners at Cheltenham Blue Lord is unlikely to find himself as far back as he did at Leopardstown, and as he is one of only a few Horses who has shown form on better ground, I do fancy him to at least hit the frame. Considering the way he stays on at the finish the Cheltenham Hill should also be in his favour, so he will be my play here.

13:55 – Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) – 2m

I don’t feel like there’s much value I can add to the Arkle debate after the late withdrawal of Energumene, as Shishkin just wins doesn’t he? Last year’s Supreme winner has enjoyed a flawless campaign over fences so far, and with Tamaroc Du Mathan easily landing a Grade 2 at Kempton last month, you can’t even argue that he’s yet to face a good Horse. It’s not just the form with Shishkin however, as he also jumps really well – not just when meeting one on a long stride, but also when getting in close and fiddling his way over. Allmankind will put in a bold showing from the front as he always does, but if he belts one of them like he did at Warwick then it’s game over, and he will likely just set the race up for Shishkin to come through up the hill. I’m obviously not going to be getting involved in any singles here, but I’m sure we’ve all got doubles and trebles at nice prices!

14:30 – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3) – 3m1f

This is a ridiculously poor renewal of the Ultima, with 16 runners being the smallest field to go to post since 2008. I put up Lieutenant Rocco for the race Ante-Post, and I would’ve been all over him had he turned up – but unfortunately he was found lame on Saturday morning and will miss the race. I went to great lengths to find a replacement bet and then that one wasn’t declared either, so I’ve really had to hit the reset button and start afresh.

The Horse who I’ve always had in the back of my mind for the Ultima is Aye Right, and whilst I’ve seen quite a few putting him up at much fancier prices than he is now, he should be more than capable of at least hitting the frame. This Harriet Graham charge was 5th in the Grade 1 RSA Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham 12 months ago on only his third start over fences, so clearly connections think quite a bit of him to drop him in the deep end like that. If you watch that performance back though then you can see he was never in his comfort zone, and he made a number of mistakes on the way around – which was fair enough considering his lack of experience. This season he has really taken a step forward over the larger obstacles however, with some fantastic efforts in defeat.

He started his season with a very good effort over 2m1f at Kelso, finishing 2nd behind subsequent Grade 2 Old Roan Chase winner Nuts Well (159) off a mark of 146, over a trip which is obviously far short of his optimum. His next run then came in the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby back up to 3m, and this performance really announced him as a contender in the 3m Chase division – as he ran a belter to finish 3rd behind Cyrname (169) and Vinndication (160) when only beaten 7 lengths. If you took that form literally then you could still say Aye Right has a bit of wiggle room with his new mark, but he’s earnt it with two more great efforts in defeat; finishing 2nd in the Grade 3 Ladbrokes Trophy off 150 when 10 lengths behind Cloth Cap (162, but was running off 136 that day!) before then finishing 2nd in the Listed Sky Bet Handicap Chase at Doncaster, this time seen off late in the day by Takingrisks (150) when Callum Bewley dropped his whip. Up 3lbs to a mark of 154 for that effort isn’t exactly ideal, but he ticks a lot of the trends boxes you need for an Ultima Horse – 10 of the last 10 winners had ran at Cheltenham before, 5/10 were 2nd season Chasers, 10/10 finished in the top 6 on their latest start, 5/10 were 8 year olds, 10/10 were trained in Britain, and 4 of the last 6 winners had ran in the Ladbrokes Trophy earlier that season. In a race which lacks quality, Aye Right should have a fantastic chance under eye-catching Jockey booking Richard Johnson.

5 Places

15:05 – Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m½f

In a division which looked less than satisfactory 12 months ago, National Hunt racing really needed a Horse to come out and win the 2020 Champion Hurdle with authority – and Epatante managed that feat under no uncertain terms. Cruising into the race under Barry Geraghty, this Mare showcased impressive speed to go on and score by a very comfortable 3 lengths. Her official rating for winning that race so impressively was 162 (1lb higher than what Honeysuckle is rated now), and she rubber stamped that mark with another visually impressive performance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November – where Aiden Coleman bided his time on the bridle before scooting away under a hands and heels ride, and Epatante was able to put 4.25 lengths between herself and Sceau Royal (157) on Good ground very quickly.

She seemingly had everything in her favour then when running the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, bidding to follow up in the race she burst onto the scene in 12 months prior. There were immediate worries going down to post that she didn’t seem herself that day however, as she was throwing her head about and really not looking comfortable at the start. It quite quickly became apparent that things weren’t right in the race too as she didn’t even arch her back at the first flight (I’ll touch on this more in a moment), but when she flattened the third-last there was no doubt that something  was wrong as she is usually inch perfect over her obstacles. You don’t need me to tell you that she ran much below par when only managing second place behind Silver Streak (163). As Nicky Henderson has been preaching lately you can just put a line through that run however, as during Seven Barrow’s thorough diagnostics they found a back issue – which Nicky said has always troubled her slightly, and that they’ve always had to ‘keep on top of it’.

The reports coming out of the yard now are that Epatante is back to her best having had her back ‘tweaked’ (operated on), and if that is the case then she would have to have a fantastic chance in the Champion Hurdle. By the time the track dries out overnight/tomorrow morning, the likely Good-to-Soft ground would suit her a lot more than it would Honeysuckle – the quicker the better! Considering the back issue may have even been troubling her during the Fighting Fifth then I think there is plenty of reason to suggest that Epatante has much more to give this season, and if she puts in a round of jumping as quick as we know she can, then these marginal gains at each Hurdle could pay dividends in what is sure to be a closely run affair. In my eyes all the geldings set to line up will struggle to give away the 7lbs allowance to two exceptional Mares, but I will be siding with Epatante to bounce back for Nicky Henderson and JP McManus, who have won 3 of the past 4 renewals together.

Put up Ante-Post

15:40 – Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1) – 2m4f

This is an extremely competitive renewal of the Mares Hurdle, and Concertista is a deserving favourite having performed extremely well in Ireland this season. Last year’s facile Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner hasn’t put a foot wrong this campaign, and if she improves again she could be very tough to stop in a race where Willie Mullins has an imperious record. Without trying to force a bet though, I do think that Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Melody is overpriced – and she looks a cracking each/way bet in the ‘without Concertista’ market.

Minella Melody was sent off favourite for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle won by Concertista 12 months ago, but the 2m trip was probably just a bit too sharp for her, as she dropped away tamely when the field quickened. She’s put in three nice efforts this season however; starting off by finishing 2nd behind recent Boyne Hurdle winner Beacon Edge (154) in a Grade 3 at Galway in October (when also having Coral Cup favourite Grand Roi 147 behind). She’s since ran well in defeat on two occasions behind Concertista (153) – getting within 1.75 lengths in a Grade 2 Mares Hurdle at Fairyhouse in November when pulling 14 lengths clear of the remainder, before then finishing 6.5 lengths behind in a Grade 3 at Leopardstown in December, when seemingly trying to set a fast pace from the front to get Concertista beat. That run was filled with plenty of positives mind, as she had Black Tears 6 lengths behind and My Sister Sarah a further 11 lengths behind despite having to give the pair 6lbs that day. There is no obvious reason why they should be able to reverse form, and if Minella Melody is ridden a little more conservatively then I can easily see her making the frame here at the very least.

If you assume that Roksana runs her race then in the ‘without Concertista’ market there are still two places up for grabs – and I think Minella Melody has more than enough talent to take one of those spots if showing that it was the trip that was the issue at Cheltenham last year, rather than the track itself.

16:15 – Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3) – 2m½f

Probably my strongest fancy of Day 1 comes in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, despite it being the best supported race in terms of the numbers declared. Joseph O’Brien won this race in 2019 with a Horse who was way ahead of his mark in Band Of Outlaws – and I think this year he has a great chance of winning the race once again, this time with Busselton.

This Mastercraftsman 4yo started his jumps career with David Cottin in France, and last May he won a 3yo Hurdle at Auteuil in good style – staying on strongly to beat State Man (now with Willie Mullins, held a Triumph Hurdle entry), Bimbo Has an Hades – who has since finished 2nd in a Grade 2 Chase at Auteuil. With that form looking useful, Busselton was gelded and made the switch to Joseph O’Brien, before starting his career at Leopardstown on Boxing Day in the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle. It’s testament to the regard that Busselton is held in to be chucked into the deep end so early in his career, but he ran a brilliant race. Setting off in a share of the lead, they set a pretty steady pace that day, but Busselton jumped well and quickened up nicely when asked for an effort. Locked into battled with Triumph Hurdle favourite Zanahiyr (149) over the final flight, Busselton only gave way late in the day – being beaten 3.75 lengths by a top class Juvenile, but holding onto the second spot when also having Saint Sam (139) 2.25 lengths behind in 4th place.

With such a promising opening effort under his belt, connections understandably decided to go for the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle back at Leopardstown on his next start, and once again he ran a race full of promise. One again setting off in a prominent position, Busselton originally took a lead from Saint Sam, but he ended up racing in mid-division. Once more jumping well however, Busselton began to make his move heading towards the second last, and he travelled powerfully through the field. Rounding the home bend he still had a good 5 lengths to make up however, and although he ran on well he was no match for Quilixios (147), and on this occasion he finished 4.75 lengths behind Saint Sam. Although behind that Willie Mullins rival however, I think there are plenty of reasons to suggest that Busselton can reverse that form at Cheltenham. First of all Saint Sam got the run of the race that day in the lead (which he won’t get on Tuesday!), whereas Busselton found himself further back than usual and had to try make up a fair amount of ground. The way he set off prominently then before losing his position a little will certainly be helped by the fact that cheek-pieces are put on him for the first time in the Boodles – which should see him travel much better. Perhaps most significant however is the fact that Busselton has received a fairly lenient BHA Handicap mark of 135 – which means he will be receiving 4lbs from Saint Sam at Cheltenham.

A further cause for optimism with Busselton having cheek-pieces applied for the first time at Cheltenham is that Joseph O’Brien has only used them for the first time on a Horse at Cheltenham twice – the first of which when Tower Bridge finished 2nd in the 2019 Novice Handicap behind A Plus Tard, and the second when Gardens Of Babylon finished 3rd in the 2019 Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle. Clearly this is a tiny sample, but Joseph O’Brien only fits his Horses with headgear when he genuinely thinks they will improve for it, so that is a major positive. With Ireland taking home the past 3 Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdles in a row, I think Busselton has a massive chance off his mark of 135 on Handicap debut – especially as he has Graded form behind the two leading Irish Juveniles in Quilixios and Zanahiyr.

Price advised Ante-Post, 5 Places

16:50 – National Hunt Challenge Cup Novcies’ Chase (Grade 2) – 3m6f

I think Day 1 is quite a tricky day punting wise, and it doesn’t get much easier with a competitive renewal of the National Hunt Chase. Obviously without Amateur riders this season it is going to be a little strange, but as such there is a level playing field when it comes to Jockey bookings – as the likes of Jamie Codd, Patrick Mullins and Derek O’Connor can’t give the well-connected Horses that extra edge over their rivals. As such, I think Jamie Codd’s ride Galvin looks opposable at skinny odds of 2/1. Although Galvin had originally been laid out for this race by Gordon Elliot, to my eye he only really has one stand-out piece of form – and that was when finishing 2nd behind Imperial Aura (163). Since then he’s won races at Killarney in July and August, before then winning a very poor Grade 3 at Tipperary in October. He obviously showed a lot of promise when stepping up to 3m at Cheltenham in October and winning a Novices’ Chase by 7 lengths, but at 2/1 I’m happy to watch him go and win – especially with those questions marks about him changing stable to Ian Ferguson (although for balance that is usually where he goes on his Summer holidays and breaks, so it shouldn’t cause too many issues).

Next Destination is the Horse who has been coming for money, and it’s pretty easy to see why. After the news that Royale Pagaille would run in the Gold Cup was announced, Paul Nicholls acted swiftly to redirect Next Destination from the 3m Grade 1 Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase to this longer 3m6f Grade 2 instead. This fragile 9yo has only had 2 starts over fences so far in his career which is the main worry, but the two races he has won have been at a good level considering they were both3m Grade 2s. His first effort saw him beat Ultima runner One For The Team by 1.25 lengths on Chase debut in the John Francome Novices’ Chase at Newbury, where he jumped well and stayed on strongly to score with a bit more in hand than the bare winning margin suggests. Showing that run to be no fluke however, Next Destination then went to Warwick in January to contest the Hampton Novices’ Chase – where this time he won going away, beating the useful Colin Tizzard charge Fiddlerontheroof (148) by a widening 1.5 lengths. Paul Nicholls had been saying on the Preview night circuit that he thought Next Destination was good enough to take on Monkfish, but clearly now he has been switched to the National Hunt Chase he will have a fantastic chance being rated 153 – 1lb better than market rival Galvin.

Next Destination will need to prove his stamina like most of these, but he certainly wasn’t stopping over 3m, and even won a 3m Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Punchestown back in 2018. The track shouldn’t cause him any issues as he has twice ran well at the Cheltenham Festival for Willie Mullins, finishing a staying-on 4th in the 2017 Champion Bumper, before then finishing an eye-catching 3rd behind Samcro in the 2018 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. With no ground concerns either as he has won on both Good and Soft ground so far this season, this classy Paul Nicholls charge could just be a class above these if staying the marathon trip.

Good luck! – Jake Price

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