The 2018 Cheltenham Festival certainly hits the ground running again this year with only the second race in – The Arkle Chase – looking a real ‘crackerjack’ of a contest.
All the talk has surrounded the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad, who heads into the race 3-from-3 over fences, and will be looking to give his trainer his third win from the last four runnings of the Arkle. This 6 year-old has certainly caught the eye with his slick jumping and I was very impressed when watching him live at Leopardstown last time out.
However, the first thing that might beat Footpad is not another horse, but actually the ground.
This horse wants if soft – it’s as simple as that! His record on ground, albeit over hurdles, with anything with ‘good’ in the going description reads 3-2-4-3.
Of course, we’ll have to see what the state of the ground is, but only once in the last eight opening days has the ground been soft. We’ve had 5 good-to-soft, 2 good and 1 soft.
Those looking to take Footpad on might also cling to the fact he’s now raced at Cheltenham twice (2016 Triumph Hurdle and 2017 Champion Hurdle) and despite running respectable races to finish third and fourth, the fact remains he’s yet to win at the track.
So, who are Footpad’s main rivals?
If the betting is anything to go by then Footpad looks to have three live dangers.
Firstly, Petit Mouchoir, who we last saw running a 5 length second behind Footpad at Leoparstown. Yes, based on that running this 7 year-old has a bit to find. However, let’s not forget that was his first run for 3 ½ months and only his second since running third in the Champion Hurdle last March. He finished one place ahead of Footpad in the Champion Hurdle there and had also beat him in the Irish Champion Hurdle that season.
Okay, there is a big chance Footpad has improved now he’s chasing, but really based on their hurdles form Petit Mouchoir was the better over the smaller obstacles and with just two runs over fences it would be foolish to think he can’t improve too.
The British challenge is fairly strong too. The Harry Whittingham-trained Saint Calvados has a growing army of fans after winning all three of his chase starts and will again be popular here. He was last seen dotting-up by 22 lengths in the Grade Two Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick and this slick-jumping front runner is sure to mix it up with the main players.
Yes, he lacks the hurdles form of the Irish pair, but he’s clearly a talented chaser and had a decent yardstick in North Hill Harvey 39 lengths back (albeit getting 7lbs) last time too.
At the age of 5 some might feel he’s a tad raw, especially as 10 of the last 11 Arkle winners were aged 6 or 7 years-old, but the likes of Well Chief, Flagship Uberalles and Champleve were all winning 5 year-olds of the Arkle so it can be done.
He could get into a battle with Footpad out in front, and will have a bit to prove now racing off level weights against much stronger opposition, but is a very exciting prospect and a horse I’d certainly not put anyone off.
No matter what happens here, he’s sure to have a big future.
So, as you can probably tell by now I was hugely impressed with Footpad’s jumping at Leopardstown last time, but I also feel Petit Mouchoir wasn’t given a hard race on just his second run back. I expect Henry de Bromhead’s grey to be a lot sharper for that outing and being the slightly better hurdler than Footpad I have to think there is more to come over fences. Saint Calvados looks exciting too, but I just wonder now racing off level weights – will he get found out?
Finally, it’s interesting that Nicky Henderson is persisting with Brain Power over fences. Yes, he’s unseated and fallen in his last two starts, but in the build-up to those races the vibes coming out of the Seven Barrows yard were very strong. He’s been given 52 days to get over that last race and some have criticised the rides he was given in those recent runs – so maybe he did have some excuses. On his chase debut at Kempton he was certainly impressive, while let’s not forget he was a 160-rated hurdler. He was, however, well back (8th) in the Champion Hurdle last season and his two runs at Prestbury Park have seen him beaten 20 & 30 lengths, so that would be a concern.
Taking everything into account, I’d rather be siding with PETIT MOUCHOIR to find the necessary improvement to overturn his recent run with Footpad, but there is still a niggle surrounding Brain Power and Henderson’s persistence to keep him over fences.
Best Bets: PETIT MOUCHOIR & SCEAUX ROYAL
This year’s Champion Hurdle will have mixed feelings for many racing fans. Some will clearly feel that for one of the Championship races it’s not great having a long odds-on favourite that only looks like it’s got to turn-up to win. While others won’t mind as long as they see a scintillating performance that stays in the Festival memory bank for many a year.
I am, or course, referring to the Nicky Henderson-trained BUVEUR D’AIR, who will head into the race as one of the main bankers of the whole meeting.
He took the 2017 running of the Champion Hurdle by 4 ½ lengths and really it should be more of the same this year. Since then he’s added four more victories to his name and is now 9-from-10 over hurdles, with his only defeat coming in the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (3rd).
Now 7 years-old he’s got plenty of time on his side and providing he stays injury-free then could be mopping-up the Champion Hurdle for a few more years after this too. Hurricane Fly was the last multiple winner of this race after successes in 2011 and 2013, but Buveur D’Air will be bidding to become the first horse since Hardy Eustace (2004/05) to successfully defend his Champion Hurdle crown.
Before that you have to go back to the Istabraq days and then See You Then, who was also trained by Nicky Henderson and won the race three times, in the 80’s to find the last consecutive winners of this race.
The 2015 Champion – Faugheen – will still have his supporters though despite failing to win the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out. However, at 10 years-old and the fact his trainer, Willie Mullins, seems to feel he’s lost his old sparkle then it’s hard to see the former champ troubling the younger legs of Buveur D’Air.
Having said, that – who knows – maybe the return to Cheltenham might give him an added lift as – don’t forget – he’s yet to lose a race at Prestbury Park (2-from-2).
However, for me, being beaten last time out by Supasundae, who is a class act, but effectively a stayer, didn’t scream out good enough form to win the Champion Hurdle, while if you are keeping the faith in the old machine then you have to ask yourself is around 6.0 value? I don’t think so.
I just hope he runs though, as a race that already lacks depth would be a contest that ‘REALLY’ would be a one-horse race without him.
Are there any other options?
I actually think there is one other angle – a certain MY TENT OR YOURS. Also trained by Nicky Henderson and probably a horse that doesn’t get enough credit. In another era this 11 year-old would have won many top class races, but has instead had to play the bridesmaid in a lot of big races – including when running second in the Champion Hurdle 12 months ago.
Yes, he’s not getting any younger at 11-years-old and let’s get one thing straight – although I think he deserves to win a Champion Hurdle (he’s been second three times!!), he’s got a lot to find with his stablemate Buveur D’Air. However, what I do feel is that he looks a cracking option to hit the frame again in a race – as mentioned – lacks any depth.
Did you know, My Tent Or Yours has raced 20 times over hurdles and been placed in the top three on 19 occasions? Wow! He’s won 7 of those and been second 9 times, so that’s a stonking 80% strike-rate of finishing in the top two from his 20 outings over the sticks – not bad, hey?
We can be sure Henderson will have him spot-on for this in what will be his fourth run in the race and his fifth time at the Festival, but with an overall Cheltenham track record that reads 2-2-2-2-2-1 then surely, he’s got to be a cracking alternative to be placed over the hot-pot and current champion Buveur D’Air.
Best Bet: MY TENT OR YOURS (to be placed)
If ALTIOR stays up, he wins – right? Well, he’s now 7-from-7 in his races over fences and 12-from-12 since he started over hurdles back in 2015. So really, it’s hard to disagree with that opening statement.
Everyone was waiting to see how he returned after his well-documented wind op, but after romping away with the Betfair Chase at Newbury in February by 4 lengths then I think its fair to say that surgery worked!
He slammed this year’s Tingle Creek winner – Politologue – that day, while last April he beat the current Champion chaser – Special Tiara – by 8 lengths at Sandown. Add in that he’s never been beaten at Cheltenham (3-from-3) and that previous Arkle winners generally do well when stepping up to this race, then it’s hard to oppose this Nicky Henderson 8 year-old.
Yes, of course, recent Dublin Chase winner – Min – will still have his fans after winning 4 of his 5 starts over fences, but let’s not forget this Willie Mullins runner was firmly put in his place by Altior at the 2016 Festival in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. There were 7 lengths between them that day.
Of those at bigger prices then the current champ – Special Tiara – looks a decent option for place punters. He’s sure to make a bold bid from the front in his normal fashion, while his form in this race isn’t too shabby – 6-3-3-1. Charbel, who was still going okay until falling late on in Altior’s Arkle last season, and the 10 year-old God’s Own are others of the bigger-priced runners that might be able to sneak into a place if the race fell apart.
Back to the big two……………….
In my view, both Min and Altior have progressed at a similar level since so despite that Supreme form coming two years ago I’ve no real reason to think Min can make up the ground. Ask yourself these questions. Is Min a better chaser? – I don’t think so. Has Altior returned to the track as good as ever? Yes. Has Altior already beaten Min at the Festival? Yes. Has Altior ever lost over hurdles or fences? No. Ok, you can see where I’m going with this.
We all love the champions and the horses that come back year-after-year to the Festival and win. The bookies hate them, but as punters these are the ones that make these four days the best jumps action on the planet. We can try and over-complicate the race and look for something to beat Altior, but on all known form – he’s beaten all the main rivals before – why bother?
Some might say it’s boring, but I disagree. Let’s stop trying to find a reason why Altior will get beaten and just enjoy a horse that could easily turn out to be one of the all-time greats!
Best Bet: ALTIOR
Of the four Championship races this is the only one that we’ll unfortunately not get a chance see last year’s winner defend its title. Sadly, Nichols Canyon, who would have again been a huge player here, suffered a fatal fall at Leopardstown back in December.
So, who’s going to be the new champ this year?
For much of the build-up, the new kid on the block in the staying hurdle division – Sam Spinner – topped the market. This rapidly-improving 6 year-old has won five of his 7 starts over hurdles and was a 2 ¾ length winner of the Long Walk Hurdle – a decent trial for this – at Ascot back in December.
He’s done little wrong and beat a decent field that day that also consisted of last year’s second and third in this race – Lil Rockerfeller and Unowhatimeanharry. With the expected improvement there should be even more to come from this 5 year-old and he looks set to run a big race. However, having never raced at Cheltenham is a bit of a negative for me.
Yes, there is no real reason to think the track won’t suit, but with all of his main rivals having proven form here then at least we can rule that doubt about when looking at their chance.
The horse that overtook him at the head of the market was last year’s Coral Cup winner – SUPASUNDAE, and, for me, it’s easy to see why. This 8 year-old was last seen winning the Irish Champion Hurdle over an inadequate 2m trip, but really this horse is a stayer. He ran the classy Apple’s Jade to ½ a length over 3m over Christmas and was giving that mare 7lbs too, while the way he won last time suggests he’s heading into the Festival in peak form.
I agree that his price is a bit on the skinny side, especially as there is quite a lot of opposition in the race, but he’s clearly a better horse than the one we saw powering up the hill to win the Coral Cup last March. I think he’s the one to beat.
Yanworth was a nice addition to the race after he reverts back to hurdles. He did okay over fences, but didn’t really hit the heights expected of him over the bigger obstacles and it looks to be a shrewd move from the Alan King yard. He’s a horse that beat Supasundae at Aintree last April so certainly has the class to take this, plus is another proven course winner at Cheltenham. Yes, his Festival record might put you off him (0-from-3), but he’s still won here twice (1 hurdles, 1 fences), while the King yard also took this in 2006 with My Way de Solzen.
Outside the top three in the market there are options for those seeking better value. Last season’s Albert Barlett Novices’ winner – Penhill – would be a player for the Mullins camp that took this race last year. Yes, he’s not been seen since last April so you’d have to take his fitness on trust, but he’s a horse that has gone well fresh in the past and won at the Festival last season after having 3 ½ months off.
The New One, who landed the 2013 Neptune, probably deserves to win another Festival race and for many years people have been crying out for him to run in the Stayers’ – they finally get their wish. He’s another you can make a case for, but, for me – although I’d love to see him collect at the age of 10 – he might just get found out by some younger legs.
The same applies to last year’s short-priced favourite – Unowhatimeanharry, who is also 10 and seems to have lost his way this season. He’s also held by Sam Spinner this season on that Long Walk form and probably had his chance 12 months ago.
The powerful owners of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede could have two live outside chances though. Their Wholestone rarely runs a bad race at Cheltenham and was a decent third in the Albert Bartlett last season. Plus, they also have the ultra-consistent L’AMI SERGE. This 8 year-old is hard to win with these days, but he also rarely finishes out of the frame. He was last seen running a close third over fences, while the time before was second in the Long Walk Hurdle behind Sam Spinner. His overall record over hurdles reads an impressive 17 top three finishes from 20 starts – meaning he’s got an 85% strike-rate of finishing in the top three – not bad!
He was also a close second in the County Hurdle at last season’s Festival. Add in a third in the 2016 JLT Novices’ Chase and a fourth in Douvan’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle back in 2015 then he’s become a Festival regular that is never far away in his races at this meeting.
With that in-mind he looks a solid alternative to Supasundae for those looking to play this race differently. Yes, with only two wins from his last 15 runs he often finds one or two too good, but he’s also a horse you know will be thereabouts and that’s a big plus if you are punting him to be in the shake-up.
Best Bet: SUPASUNDAE, L’AMI SERGE (to be placed)
Cheltenham Gold Cup
With the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite heading the betting for this market since his King George Chase win on Boxing Day then when assessing this race – you are either with him, or not.
Those that think he can add the Gold Cup to his RSA Chase win at the Festival 12 months ago will point to the fact he had some very useful horses well behind at Kempton on Boxing Day and despite his obvious quirks – don’t forget, this son of Scorpion did his best crab impression up the hill in the RSA last season – he’s still a very talented staying chaser.
He’s also done little wrong since the Festival last year – winning at Aintree, Sandown and, of course, the King George.
However, for me, I just feel this will be by far his hardest test to date and he’s worth taking on. The other big guns in the King George – like Bristol de Mai (becoming a Haydock specialist) and Thistlecrack (clearly not the same horse after his injury) had excuses – so, was that King George win as good as some people are saying?
If we actually look at the horses that finished closest to him – Double Shuffle (1 length 2nd) and Tea For Two (2 lengths 3rd) then with these being rated 151 and 164 we have to decide if that pair ran the races of their lives and improved bundles, or did Might Bite actually run nearer to their level?
For me, it’s probably a bit of both, but you have to ask yourself was that run good enough to land what looks a much more competitive Gold Cup?
Don’t forget, we didn’t have a single Irish challenger in the King George this season, but now Might Bite will face many big names from the Emerald Isle.
Okay, last year’s hero -Sizing John – will unfortunately miss the race through injury but there are still plenty of other big challengers to Henderson’s Gold Cup favourite.
Recent Red Mills Chase winner – Our Duke – is another big Irish challenger, as is Road To Respect, who was a Festival winner 12 months ago (Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Chase) and hails from the shrewd Noel Meade camp.
Total Recall will be looking to give trainer Willie Mullins his first win in the race and after winning the Munster National and the Ladbrokes Gold Trophy this season then he’s another of the Irish raiders that will be popular. It is, however, worth pointing out that all three of his wins this term have been when carrying between 10-4 and 10-8, so we’ll have to see if he’s up to lumping 11-10 around against much better horses!
Definitly Red was a good winner of the Cotswold Chase at the track in January and is certainly making a name for himself this season, while last year’s third – Native River – returned to the track with an easy win in the Denman Chase in February to stake his claim. These are yet more alternatives to Might Bite.
However, the horse I like is KILLULTAGH VIC. Another that will be looking to give the Willie Mullins yard their first winner in this race, but this 9 year-old has only had 14 career runs and should have more to give. Yes, backing a horse to win the Gold Cup that fell last time out, and also one that’s only had three runs over fences, doesn’t look the wisest move.
However, he was set to win last time until falling at the final fence in the Grade One Irish Gold Cup. With Mullins having a raft of winners at the Dublin Racing Festival he was asked what his highlight was – he replied by saying his lowlight was Vic falling at the last!
To me that suggests he not only thought he’d have won that race, but that he’s he thinks there’s more to come.
Take that tumble out and he’s won his previous five, the first of which was the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle at the 2015 Festival. He’s a horse that’s clearly had his issues, but if the Mullins team can get him to the race in one piece then he’s a classy sort on his day.
Getting the trip is an unknown, but we can expect him to be ridden to creep into the race, while the form of that recent race (when he fell) has since been franked with the fourth – Our Duke – as horse Vic would have beaten – since winning.
Best Bet: KILLULTAGH VIC