The wait for the 2018 Cheltenham Festival is almost over folks!
As we draw ever nearer to the best four days of National Hunt action on the calendar, the days leading up to Tuesday 13th March will once again be awash with ‘Festival Banker’ talk – therefore, if you can’t beat them, join them!
In recent years the layers have certainly come off worse in their annual four-day battle with punters at the Cheltenham Festival – so, will it be more of the same this year?
During the 2016 Festival we saw a stonking 10 winning favourites go in, but despite that being down to 6 winning market leaders in 2017 we still saw a massive 46% of jollies placed in the 28 Festival races 12 months ago!
So, what can we expect this year when it comes to the so-called ‘Festival Bankers’?
With the Ante Post markets starting to settle down, and with it also being a bit clearer which races certain horses are going for, I thought we’d take a look at some of the ‘big-gun’ horses that are either going to make or break most peoples Festival.
DAY ONE, Tuesday 13th March 2018
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
Price: Around 3.25
Willie Mullins, owner Rich Ricci and jockey Ruby Walsh have all teamed-up to win the Festival’s opening contest three times in the last five years and in Getabird punters are sure to latch onto the trio again. This 6-year-old is unbeaten in his four races (2 NH Flat & 2 Hurdlers) and looks another Mullins superstar in the making. He destroyed Mengli Khan by an easy 9 lengths last time in the Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle at Punchestown and with that horse currently in the top five in the betting then the opposition to the favourite looks fairly weak. He’s a strong-travelling sort, but the fact he’s also already won over 2m4f will be a big asset up.
This race is often run at a fair clip so proven stamina, especially up the Cheltenham hill, is a ‘must-have’.
Those against him could cling to the fact 12 of the last 14 winners had raced at least 4 times over hurdles, while with it being the first race of the Festival there is a very good chance punters will get carried away with this Mullins runner.
Don’t forget, a big chunk of the crowd are Irish and they will be sporting their main player in the opener to get the four days off to a flyer. With that in mind, there is a good chance his price will shorten.
Recent Betfair Hurdle winner – Kalashnikov – is certainly a really good option against the favourite. This Amy Murphy-trained 5-year-old has won three of his 4 hurdles starts (2nd in the other) and the way he won last time at Newbury was very impressive. He beat a top field of 24 by 4 ½ lengths that day and on ground that wasn’t probably ideal. Connections have always said he’s much better on a sounder surface, while with only five career runs there should be more to come from this powerful sort. Kalashnikov is feared and I expect him to give the Mullins horse plenty to think about.
However, with the yards top record in the race, I’m going to stick with Getabird to fly home.
Price: Around 2.00
If the principles all line-up then this looks to be one of the festival ‘must-see’ races. It’s another Willie Mullins-trained hot-pot that heads the market though as Footpad looks to give the yard their third Arkle Chase win in the last four years. Don’t forget, this 6-year-old was third in the 2016 Triumph Hurdle and fourth last year’s Champion Hurdle so was bringing top form to his first season over fences. He’s so far not let connections down either and is now 3-from-3 over the bigger obstacles, plus was super-impressive last time at Leopardstown in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase – a contest that is often a good guide for this.
He’s a quick and slick jumper that likes to get on with things out in front so that will certainly put a lot of jumping pressure on the other horses in the race. However, he seems a bit skinny in the betting to me.
Yes, he’s done nothing wrong over fences, but let’s not forget Petit Mouchoir was probably the slightly better hurdler – he was third in the Champion Hurdle last year – a place ahead of Footpad. Yes, this Henry de Bromhead runner was 5 lengths adrift of Footpad last time in Ireland, but this 7-year-old is sure to have improved for the run (first outing for 3 ½ months) and I think he can get a lot closer this time.
The ground would also be a worry for Footpad. All his career wins have been with significant cut and every time he’s raced on good, or good-to-soft (4 times) he’s been beaten. Obviously, if the ground did come up soft then it would be a lot more dangerous to take him on.
Saint Calvados is another viable alternative to Footpad. He’s won many fans by winning all three starts over fences and was an impressive 22 lengths winner of the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick last time. He’s a big player and is another that likes to get on with things so we could be in for a fascinating jumping battle out in front between this one and Footpad. Yes, with 10 of the last 11 Arkle winners aged 6 or 7 years-old so this 5-year-old Saint Calvados does fall down here, but I’m not so sure many have actually tried. I can recall the likes of Well Chief, Flagship Uberalles, and Champleve all winning the Arkle as 5 year-olds, so it is possible!
Price: Around 1.50
Not the best renewal of the Champion Hurdle and really barring accidents its hard to see the current champ – Buveur D’Air – not retaining his title. Faugheen looked his only real challenger a few weeks ago, but with the 2015 Champion Hurdler now 10 years old and clearly not the same horse as he once was then the this looks Buveur D’Air’s race to lose. Faugheen was beaten by Supasundae last time in the Irish Champion Hurdle and despite the Jessie Harrington-trained horse being top-class he’s really a stayer so this further underlined Faugheen being on the decline. If he’s not got the pace to beat a 2m4f-3m horse then it’s going to be hard for him to cope with the pace of Buveur D’Air.
Since winning this race 12 months ago, Nicky Henderson’s 7-year-old has won four times and is now 9 from 10 over hurdles – with his only defeat coming when third to Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Of the rest, My Tent Or Yours looks a cracking option to be placed again and could easily give Henderson a 1-2 in the race for a second year. This horse took the silver medal in this 12 months ago and has done little wrong since. Yes, he’s a horse that should be winning more races, but he’s also a horse that rarely runs a bad race and has finished in the top three in 19 of his 20 hurdles starts! There is little depth to the race, so Buveur D’Air has to be another banker in what could be a bad afternoon for the layers.
Conclusion: SUPER BANKER
Price: Around 1.67
Some people feel Apple Jade’s connections are copping out a bit here as she’d actually be a big player in the Stayers’ Hurdle – especially getting the mares allowance.
However, you have to ask yourself – if you were the owner, and you could more or less guarantee a win at the Cheltenham Festival, albeit in a lesser race – what would you do?
Plus, don’t forget Apple’s Jade won this race last year and we all love seeing the past champs defend their races – right? Anyway, as punters (or layers on the exchanges) we can only deal with what’s put in front of us.
Since winning this race 12 months ago Apple’s Jade hasn’t lost – winning four times – and the form of her ½ win over Supasundae was given a further shot in the arm recently with that horse landing the Irish Champion Hurdle. Barring last year, this race has always been one that lacks depth and with proven course form, and the fact she stays much further than this 2m4f trip, then really based on the official ratings this should be a walk in the ‘Prestbury’ park for Jade.
DAY TWO, Wednesday 14th March 2018
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle
Price: Around 1.80
What’s that coming over the hill……….is it a monster!? That was the in-running text commentary on the Racing Post when Samcro powered to the front in the Grade One Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown last time out and it could be more of the same here. This Gordon Elliott-trained 6-year-old is billed as the next big thing and it’s hard to disagree.
Yes, as we all know the horse racing world has a habit of over-hyping horses, after all, we all love the superstars of the game and with National Hunt racing punters do get a better chance to build-up affiliations with certain horses.
This could, however, easily be the next one. He’s already got a bulging fan base and if he lands this race we are likely to hear a ‘monster roar’ from the crowd from a horse being dubbed ‘a monster’! He’s already likely to be sent off around Evs (or a shade of odds-on), but depending on what happens to all the day one hot-pots then we could even see Samcro going off nearer 1/2 with the bookies running for cover! Ok, some might question what he’s actually beaten so far but coming from the powerful Gordon Elliott yard then they’ve plenty of decent yardsticks to compare him too. He’s unbeaten from six races now and really he’s likely to make it seven here.
If you are looking to take him then I’ve certainly been impressed with Nicky Henderson’s On The Blind Side this season and he could give Samcro most to think about. He’s one of those that hits a flat spot in his races, but once the race turns into a test of stamina the turbo kicks-in and having course winning form at the track then I’d certainly not put you off him.
It’s another fascinating contest and when you have unbeaten horses then it’s always hard to know how high up the ranks they will rise, but it’s hard to not get drawn into the Samcro circus on what we’ve all seen to date. Yes, he’s is yet to race at Cheltenham, but he’s a horse that should relish the stiff finish and there is every chance the track could improve him further. We all love our heroes in this game, so let’s hope those that are giving Samcro a top-billing are right. I think they will be!
Price: Around 4.33
Presenting Percy landed the Pertemps Final Hurdle easily at the Festival last season and has since made a decent transition to fences – winning two of this three starts over the bigger obstacles. Connections have been mixing it up with him though, after a winning return over hurdles at Punchestown and then ran a fair second to Our Duke in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park in the middle of February.
Let’s make no mistake – he’s is a very decent horse and with no disrespect to his trainer – Patrick Kelly – he’d surely be a lot shorter in the betting if trained by Mullins or Elliott. This, however, can work in favour of punters if you fancy him. I think he’s a big player, but in a competitive-looking race the there are certainly other options.
It’s also worth noting that he didn’t jump the best when finishing third on his second start over fences. Yes, that came over 2m6f and he may have had to jump a tad quicker than he’d have liked. When upped to 3m5f next time he certainly jumped better. My thinking here is that over this 3m, will his jumping be put under pressure again? Yes, he stays and if in the shake-up coming up the hill then he might be hard to beat.
However, there are alternatives if we took on Percy. We’d also have the Henry de Bromhead-trained Monalee running for us. This 7-year-old won the Flogas Novices Chase at Leopardstown last time out and with 4 of the last 9 winners of the RSA Chase taking in that 2m5f contest that’s a good trend on his side. Okay, he fell two starts ago, but he certainly jumped a lot better last time and his confidence should be restored.
He was also second in the Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle at the Festival last year – a race 5 of the last 8 winners of this contested! Add in the improving Black Corton, who could also head for this race, then there is plenty of opposition to Percy to suggest he’s worth taking on.
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Price: Around 1.73
I think it’s fair to say – that wind operation worked! Yes, last season’s Arkle Chase winner – Altior – returned with a bang at Newbury in February with many people wondering if this unbeaten chaser would come back at the same level as he left off. He’s now 7-from-7 over fences after beating this season’s Tingle Creek winner Politologue in the Betfair Chase at Newbury, and it’s hard to pick holes in his chance.
Arkle winners have a good record when stepping up into the Champion Chase, while after landing the 2016 Supreme Novices’ hurdle then Nicky Henderson’s 8-year-old will be looking for this third different Festival race in as many years.
Yes, there is the dreaded ‘bounce factor’ to take into account after returning to win after such a long time off, but he’s shown no signs of that in the past so I’d rather be with him, rather than against him.
Min looks his biggest threat. Yes, he was impressive last time when jumping well to win the Coral Dublin Chase. However, this will be harder and let’s not forget Altior has already taken Min’s measure when beating him fair and square in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle a few years ago. Last year’s first and second – Special Tiara and Fox Norton – can make bold bids if they run (Fox Norton will probably head for the Ryanair), but it’s hard to see beyond Altior giving trainer Nicky Henderson his fifth win in the race.
CAUSE OF CAUSES
X-Country (Glenfarclas Chase)
Price: Around 4.00
After winning this race 12 months ago Gordon Elliott’s charge ran a blinder to be runner-up in the Grand National and this 10-year-old looks to heading for both races again this season. First-up is his defense of the Cross Country race – a marmite contest that some Festival fans use to head to the bar. However, for many, it’s a chance to mix it up a bit and after all ‘variety is the spice of life’…….so they say! 12 months ago Cause Of Causes beat a stalwart in these races – Bless The Wings – by 9 lengths and whether you are with him, or not he’s going to be a big player again this year.
His Cheltenham Festival record is second-to-none, having tasted glory in three different races (Toby Balding Amateur, Kim Muir & Cross Country) so he’s a horse that clearly loves this place, adores the Festival and seems to be at his best at this time of year.
Those against him might cling to the fact he had a hard race in the Grand National and has that left a mark? He was well down the field last time out, but that was clearly a race to blow away the cobwebs and it was also over an inadequate 2m5f trip.
This would have been his target and he’ll have come on bundles for that last run. The other main McManus runners in the race – Josies Orders and Auvergnat – will be popular against the champ, but based purely on his Festival record then the percentage call has to be Cause Of Causes winning at the Festival for the fourth time!
DAY THREE, Thursday 15th March 2018
UN DE SCEAUX
Price: Around 4.00
This is another of the Festival races that is building up to be a cracker. Last year’s winner – Un De Sceaux – will, of course, again be all the rage, but at the age of 10 can he land his third Festival race after taking this 12 months ago and the Arkle Chase in 2015? We last saw him winning the Clarence House Chase at Ascot by 7 lengths and before that he dotted-up by 25 lengths at Cork in a decent Grade Two. Those wins have clearly underlined he’s as good as ever this season and after running the opposition ragged from the front in this last season there is every reason to think he can do so again.
Yes, this 2m5f stretches his stamina, but his runs at Cheltenham now read an impressive 1-2-1-1, with his only defeat coming at the hands of Sprinter Sacre in the 2016 Champion Chase.
There is, however, a potentially huge fly in the ointment ahead of his chance – Waiting Patiently – who was ultra-impressive when landing the Ascot Chase recently. He’s now 6-from-6 over fences and with a delightful mix of a turn of foot and stamina then he’s a horse that looks to be going to the very top.
However, he does want soft ground! Therefore, there is every chance he might not even run here, while connections have also suggested he’s better on a flatter track – so they may well save him for Aintree. So, it’s easy for me – If Waiting Patiently does come here then I’d certainly be worried if I was a supporter of Un De Sceaux. However, if he does bypass the Festival in search of softer ground and/or a flatter track then Un De Sceaux would be hard to beat.
Conclusion: BANKER (But – if Waiting Patiently runs, then Blowout)
Price: Around 4.33
Supasundae landed the Coral Cup at the Festival 12 months ago and was last seen winning the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. Yes, some might say he beat an ageing Faugheen that has lost his sparkle, but he still had some fair sorts in behind that day and let’s not forget it was over 2m.
This horse is a stayer at heart so to have the pace to win over that trip was still a very decent effort and one that will have him spot-on for the Festival.
He’s run the classy Apple’s Jade to ½ a length this season over 3m and with this division cutting up this race looks his for the taking with proven Festival form already in his locker.
That’s also something his main rival – Sam Spinner – doesn’t have. This 6-year-old is still a player here though after winning the Long Walk Hurdle last time in decent fashion. He’s a horse that likes to get on with things and hasn’t done anything wrong, but despite being a dour stayer I’d still be a tad worried that he’s never raced at Cheltenham before. Add in that front-runners don’t actually have the best record in this race.
The jockey will need to get the fractions spot-on otherwise they will just be setting the race up so something else, or not have enough left to get up the hill.
Yanworth adds another subplot to the race as he’s likely to revert back to hurdles after not quite hitting the heights expected over fences. It’s an interesting move by the King camp and although he’s now 0-from-3 at the Festival his overall Cheltenham course record isn’t a bad one – 4-1-2-Dsq-1 – basically both times he’s raced at Prestbury Park outside the Festival he’s won. He also beat Supasundae at Aintree at Aintree last season so certainly has the class to take this, while the King stable are no strangers to taking this prize after getting the job done in 2006 with My Way de Solzen.
Having said that, I’d still prefer to stick with Supasundae to make it a ‘Super Thursday’. We know loves it here at Cheltenham, and in particular, the Festival, plus is also better than ever after his recent Irish Champion Hurdle success.
Mares Novices Hurdle
Price: Around 2.25
One of the newer Festival races, as we’ve only had two previous runnings, and with leading Irish yard – Willie Mullins – winning them both then it’s easy to see why his Laurina will be popular here. This 5-year-old has caught the eye after winning very easily at Tramore and Fairyhouse this season and with only four career outings in total (had two when trained in France), then there should be a lot more to come. Both victories have been in heavy ground and she’s yet to race on a quicker surface, but that’s unlikely to be an issue. The fact she’s also won over 2m2f is a plus too, which suggests she’ll be fine getting up the hill over this furlong shorter trip.
A bit like the earlier Mares’ only race at the Festival these contests do lack a bit of depth, so the main problem, if you want to take on the Mullins hot-pot, is to find something that will beat her. Maria’s Benefit could be the answer and she had been very impressive, until last time out when only just getting home at Doncaster. She beat another potential danger – Irish Roe – by just ¾ of a length that day, but she also looked to have a hard race and that might have left it’s mark. She’s useful, but the Mullins horse, with just two runs this season, looks to have more to come and it’s no secret connections think very highly of her.
DAY FOUR, Friday 16th March 2018
Price: Around 4.00
This mare has certainly won many fans since coming over from France to join the Nicky Henderson yard and will head to the Festival with an unbeaten 4-from-4 record. Henderson has won this race six times so knows what’s needed while her valuable 7lbs mares’ allowance is a big plus. Top owner JP McManus has also taken the last two runnings of this and he’ll be keen to make it three. Add in that all three of her UK wins have been here at Cheltenham then I think it’s fair to say she’s proven at the track! So, why isn’t she a shorter price? It’s a good question. Maybe punters are wary of the ground?
All her runs to date have been on a soft surface, while despite winning last time out she didn’t really beat much. In fact, what has she beaten so far in all her races? Not a great deal. Yes, she is clearly well thought of and with the allowance, she will be dangerous to overlook, but, for me, there are several others in the race that have done well this season too. Most notably the Alan King-trained Redicean, plus one of the main Mullins runners – Mr Adjudicator, who is already a proven Grade One Hurdle winner, whereas Apple’s Shakira isn’t.
Price: Around 5.00
Onto the ‘big one’ and since winning the King George back on Boxing Day the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite has topped the betting for the Gold Cup. His fans will also remember him doing his best crab impression up the Cheltenham hill before winning last year’s RSA Chase, but despite his obvious class, he’s clearly a horse that also has a few quirks. Don’t forget, he also took a crashing fall at Kempton two Boxing Day’s ago, while I think you can pick holes in the King George form this year. Okay, he had the likes of Bristol De Mai & Thistlecrack well beaten, but Thistlecrack is clearly not the same horse he was the season before, while Bristol is turning into a Haydock specialist.
With respect to the likes of Double Shuffle and Tea For Two, who finished a close second and third in the King George, is that really Gold Cup winning form? Of course, you can only beat what’s put in front of you, but Double Shuffle was rated just 151 and finished a length behind Might Bite. So, did Double Shuffle improve by around 10lbs, or is Might Bite not quite as good as we might all think? It’s hard to say and Might Bite is clearly a classy horse, but in a Gold Cup where a case can be made for 5 or 6 others then I’d rather have all of those running for me than pinning my hopes on Might Bite, who – as mentioned – only beat a 151-rated horse a length last time.
Okay, the current champ – Sizing John – now misses the race through injury so that will, of course, make Might Bite’s task that much easier. However, we’ve still got the likes of last year’s third – Native River – who returned to win the Denman Chase at Newbury in decent fashion last month, plus recent Cotswold Chase hero Definitly Red, who was very impressive that day running for us. Oh, there is also a certain Killultagh Vic, who would have surely won last time out when falling at the last at Leopardstown, then that’s three others with big chances.
Then there’s the Christmas Chase winner Road To Respect, who has only finished out of the first three once from his 10 chase starts and last year’s Irish National winner Our Duke – who both have massive chances too. Therefore, yes, Might Bite is probably the one to beat – after all he is the current King George champ and also took the RSA Chase at the Festival 12 months ago but he’ll be facing a whole host of horses that also have big Gold Cup credentials, including a bunch of top Irish horses that he’s yet to encounter.