13:30 JCB Triumph Hurdle 2m 1f
Popular owner JP McManus took this race 12 months ago and he looks to have a leading chance again this year – this time with APPLE’S SHAKIRA. This French recruit has done little wrong since coming over to join the Nicky Henderson yard – winning all three of her starts, and all three came at Cheltenham! Therefore, track experience is not in doubt, while being a mare she gets a handy 7lb allowance from the males in the race. She’s one of the highest-rated in the field anyway, so with that 7lb pull this gives her a very big chance.
Yes, she’s a bit short in the betting and some may question what she’s beaten to date with her wins coming in just 6 and 4 horse races but with the race cutting up, proven form at the track and also the mares allowance it’s hard to get away from her. She actually beat a horse last time – Look My Way – that is no slouch, plus all of her wins have been on soft ground so she’s likely to get her ground but if there is any drying underfoot this would be a slight unknown.
So, what are the alternatives? The Gordon Elliott-trained Farclas is certainly one. He was second to Mr Adjudicator, who is also in this race, in the Spring Hurdle (Grade One) at Leopardstown last time out on only his second start over hurdles and if running to that form would have a leading say for a yard that took this in 2014. That race has also been a good trial for this, with 4 of the last 6 winners having raced in that contest.
Mr Adjudicator had 1/1/4 lengths to spare at the line that day and he’ll be looking to add to the single previous Willie Mullins-trained winner of the race (2002, Scolardy). He’s one for the shortlist and the way he kept on last time suggests there’s more to come.
Another stable that have a decent record in the race is the Alan King camp. Ok, they’ve not won it for a while but did take the 2005 and 2007 runnings with Penzance and Katchit, but in Redicean they look to have a horse with a big chance.
He landed the Adonis Hurdle at Kempton last time and that is the other decent guide race to this – 2 of the last 8 winners won that race before taking the Triumph Hurdle. He jumped much better that day and that win made it 3-from-3 over hurdles since switching from the flat (David O’Meara) but having done all his racing at Kempton means we’ll have to trust his ability to handle the Cheltenham track. We Have a Dream, also from the Henderson yard, would have been a player but the reports are he’s unlikely to run now after not eating up. Everything points to Apple’s Shakira, who after Buveur D’Air Geraghty has said on record he thinks is his second-best chance of a winner at the Festival.
14:10 Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
The Willie Mullins yard won this a year ago with Arctic Fire and are currently 4 from 25 in the race – therefore, all their runners should command respect. The same can be said for the Paul Nicholls camp, who won this in 2009 and 2014 but also have 4 wins in total in the race. It’s also been a cracking contest for the Irish in general with 8 wins in the last 11 renewals. Don’t be too worried if your fancy doesn’t have previous Festival experience and weirdly this is one of those races where that’s actually a plus – since 1961 only 7 winners had raced at a previous Festival! It’s also interesting that 11 of the last 12 were rated in the 130’s.
Yes, last year’s winner – Arctic Fire – stuck his tongue out at that trend (158) but with a 92% return in the last 12 runnings it’s still a huge stat to have on your side. With that in-mind, the Willlie Mullins-trained Meri Devie , Bleu Et Rouge, Whiskey Sour and Sandsend are all sure to be popular as the trainer looks to continue his fine 2018 Festival. Mere Devie looks likely to go off shortest of the Mullins runners, but SANDSEND could be the least exposed with Katie Walsh riding. This 5 year-old has only had three career starts so there should be more to come. He won by a neck at Naas last time but showed good battling qualities that day on soft/heavy ground and Katie has already had a winner at the Festival.
However, CHESTERFIELD (e/w), is rated 140, so just a pound outside the ratings stat but with Danny Sansom (claiming 7lbs) riding then this 8 year-old falls well below. Yes, he was well-beaten in the Greatwood Hurdle here in November but is 8lbs lower this time and does have course-winning form in the past. He blew away the cobwebs with an easy win at Kempton a few weeks ago in a jumper/bumper race so will head here full of confidence – he’s won on soft ground but any ease in the ground is also fine.
Of the Nicholls runners, Divin Bere would be of interest if the ground dries out a bit more – he was a close second in the Fred Winter last season and is only 2lbs higher this time but does need to put some below-par runs this season behind him. Moon Racer is a past Bumper winner at the Festival but the Pipe camp are not having the best of seasons so this one despite starting to look well-handicapped is hard to get excited about until we see more from the yard.
A Hare Breath is a course winner that can’t be overlooked but isn’t getting any younger, while he Fred Winter winner of 12 months ago – Flying Tiger is a consistent sort that represents the Nick Williams camp that have already been on the score sheet at the Festival.
The final pick though is IVANOVICH GORBATOV (e/w). A familiar horse at the Festival these days and we all remember him winning the 2016 Triumph Hurdle – beating a certain Apple’s Jade. Yes, he’s not really built on that since, but he wasn’t disgraced in this race 12 months ago – beaten just 3 lengths into 6th and was sent off favourite that day too. He’s 2lbs lower this time and I agree a lot will hinge on the ground drying out a bit more but if it does then surely, he’s got to have a leading chance based on his current handicap mark.
14:50 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle 3m
This is another race Willie Mullins took this 12 months ago, but he’s actually only 1 from 29 in the race. The Irish have, however, landed 3 of the last 4, while despite it being a competitive contest it’s not been a bad one for the favourites – with 4 of the last 12 winning.
Mullins is sure to fire several bullets at the race again so anything he runs should be respected. However, in recent weeks the race has revolved around the Henderson-trained Santini. This 6 year-old remains unbeaten after wins at Newbury and here at Cheltenham last time out. Therefore, the track is fine and having won a point-to-point over 3m then getting this extra trip should be within range.
It was also slightly strange that jockey Nico de Boinville, who had ridden Santini in his first UK race, jocked-off him in favour of another Henderson runner in that race last time. Plus, unless you were on at the bigger prices, he’s certainly no value in what looks a competitive renewal. Finally, there is also a big stat against him – horses that have raced over hurdles less than 3 times are currently 0 from 34 (he’s raced twice).
However, if you still fancy Henderson to win this race, you’ve got another live chance though. The stable last took this in 2011 with Bobs Worth and with CHEF DES OBEAUX they’ve got another big player. This 6 year-old has won his last three starts in eye-catching fashion – including the Albert Bartlett Trial for this race at Haydock last month. He won by 15 lengths that day on heavy ground and with proven form over 3m then the trip is not an issue. He looks a proper stayer and despite having never raced at Cheltenham there could be even more to come from him over this stiff finish. Of those at the top of the market he gets the nod for me.
Henderson could also have Mr Whipped, who would have surely be heading into the race a lot shorter had he not been beaten at odds-on at Musselburgh last time. However, that tight/flat track doesn’t always suit horses so based on his runs before that then if you can forgive that last effort he can’t be overlooked from this powerful yard.
Of the rest, I was impressed with CALETT MAD (e/w) last time out at Musselburgh. The word is that he’s come out of that race well and being a proven course winner at the track then this Nigel Twiston-Davies runner looks value of those at bigger odds.
A horse that beat Calett Mad two runs back – ENNISCOFFEY OSCAR (e/w) is another that could go well at a fair price. This improving 6 year-old stayed on well in the Albert Barlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle last time at Doncaster and also showed great battling qualities that day. The front two had some fair sorts in behind that day and as long as that contest hasn’t taken it out of him then he brings solid form to the race. With connections giving him 48 days to get over that race then that’s an encouraging sign, while the form has clearly been franked with the fourth – the already mentioned, Calett Mad – winning since.
Chris’s Dream is another to note after winning his last two, including an easy 63 length romp in a Grade Three at Clonmel last time. He might want the ground really soft though so a lot depends on that – if it did come up heavy/soft then he can’t be ruled out.
15:30 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase 3m 2½f
With the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite heading the betting for this market since his King George Chase win on Boxing Day then really – 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 also 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 – now misses the race through injury and with that the chance to defend his title but there are still many other big names the Henderson favourite will have to overcome.
Recent Red Mills Chase winner – Our Duke – is one of those big Irish challengers, 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. Our Duke has proven stamina after landing the Irish National last year, while he heads here in tip-top form after a win over the classy Presenting Percy at Gowran Park over an inadequate 2m4f trip.
ROAD TO RESPECT (e/w) is a big player for me. At just 7 years-old this improving chaser won the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown back in December and so far over fences he’s won 5 and been second in three times from his 10 starts. He beat the useful Balko Des Flos in that race, plus had the current Gold Cup champ – Sizing John – well back in 7th and last year’s GC runner-up Minnella Rocco adrift in fourth. He acts on any ground and knows what the Festival is all about after running away with the Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Place 12 months ago. Trainer Noel Meade has been patient with him but he’s a horse that clearly goes well fresh so the 78 day break is more of a plus than a negative. He can go close to giving trainer Noel Meade his first Gold Cup winner.
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. Native River would be a player, especially on soft ground, but horses beaten in their first Gold Cup are currently 0 from 66 when running in the race again.
However, the other horse I like is KILLULTAGH VIC (e/w). 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 – a horse Vic would have beaten – since winning.
16:10 St James’ Place Foxhunter Chase 3m 2½f
Not everyone’s favourite Festival race, but a great chance for the amateurs to strut their stuff over the Gold Cup trip. Don’t forget it’s another race that the better amateur jockeys are the ones to have on your side. Yes, a decent horse helps, but in races like this a top amateur jockey riding your fancy is a massive plus to have. With all respect to Victoria Pendleton – she steered Pacha Du Polder to 5th in 2016 and she did a good job to ride to the best of her ability. However, a year later with the more experienced Bryony Front on Polder it was a different story and that was the difference from being fifth and winning!
Obviously, it works both ways – if Miss Frost was to race Pendleton in the Velodrome I know who I’d be siding with! A lot of decent trends to take into the contest too. 25 of the last 27 winners were aged 11 or younger, while 7 of the last 9 winners actually came from the first four in the betting. 10 of the last 12 winners also ran in the last 34 days, while the Irish have a top recent record – winning 6 of the last 7 runnings.
Trainer Paul Nicholls often fares well too – he took the prize 12 months ago with PACHER DU POLDER (e/w) who was also 5th in 2016 and this 11 year-old is sure to be popular again. Nicholls also won the race in 2004 & 2005. He blew away the cobwebs with a third at Doncaster last month and should now be spot-on for this. I expect him to overturn that form with Warden Hill, who beat him around 6 lengths that day – current champs also have a decent record in the race with Salsify and On The Fringe both successfully defending their titles this century.
Nicholls also has WONDERFUL CHARM in the race – a 10 year-old that was a neck second in the race 12 months ago. He went onto run 19th in the Grand National, but after an easy win at Musselburgh last time would have had this race as a target all season. His Cheltenham form reads well and is still only 10 years-old, which is young in this race – I expect him to be thereabouts and of the Nicholls runners he’s my pick.
We could also see the 2015 and 2017 winner of the race in ON THE FRINGE (e/w). This 13 year-old failed at the 11/8 fav in the race 12 months ago, but actually wasn’t beaten far in the end (less than 3 lengths) and despite not getting any younger has been lightly-raced this season. He would be foolish to rule out in a race his recent runs in read 1-1-4 – of those at bigger prices he catches the eye and Nina is a big plus in the saddle.
The big talking horse though is Burning Ambition. This 7 year-old has only had 7 runs in his career and has won three of his last four. He also wasn’t disgraced behind the useful Gilgamboa last time at Punchestown and is sure to be popular with top jockey Jamie Codd booked to ride. However, despite looking a massive player he’s certainly no value in the betting in a renewal that looks as competitive as ever. Foxrock is another that will be popular too. This 10 year-old has only had one run this season and that was a decent second to Gilgamboa at Thurles in January. He’ll have come on bundles for that and would have had this race as a target since. Connections (Fleming) had a Festival winner last season too so will be keen to repeat the feat here and with the Irish having a cracking record in the race he’s taken to uphold their good run. His Cheltenham course record would be a concern for me though (9th & 12th).
Virak and Caid Du Berlais are other Paul Nicholls runners that can’t be overlooked, while the former Nicky Henderson-trained Volnay De Thaix is another that might be dangerous to overlook. He’s won his two recent points in decent fashion and it was only last April he ran the classy L’Ami Serge to 7 ½ lengths at Sandown. He’s still only 9 years-old and could have more to offer.
16:50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle 2m 4½f
Due to the name of the race it’s always one that gets linked with any David Pipe-trained runner but be warned! Of course, the Pipe camp would love to win this race but it’s not always as easy as just saying it. They do target a lot of horses at it but with a record that currently reads 0-from-18, including three beaten favourites, then it’s clear their runners can often be over played here.
This year the Pipe runners could be Dell’ Arca and Mr Big Shot, with the last-named looking their most interesting being he’s 3-from-3 and yet to lose a race but had clearly had his issues so we’ll have to see how well the Pipe’s get him back.
It’s actually been a good race for the Irish since it was first run in 2009 – winning 4 of the last 7. Willie Mullins has been responsible for 3 of those winners since 2011, while on the domestic front trainer Paul Nicholls is the main man – winning it in 2013 and 2016. Gigginstown runners are also to be respected – they’ve won the race three times to date, including 12 months ago with the Gordon Elliott-trained Champagne Classic.
Horses aged 5 and 6 and won ALL 9 runnings though so this is certainly a nice trend building up and another that the 5 year-old and Gordon Elliott-trained FLAWLESS ESCAPE fits. This lightly-raced hurdler has only had 4 career starts but ran the classy Total Recall to 3 ¼ lengths at Leopardstown in early February and despite being 9lbs higher here that looks solid form to take into a race like this. That run also came over 3m and after getting a bit tired the drop back to 2m4f looks ideal. He won over this trip the time before – beating a fair sort in Jetez – so with the stiff Cheltenham finish this step back in distance looks the answer.
Elliott also has a good chance with Sire Du Berlais, who can be expected to improve for his recent second at Fairyhouse on just his fifth career run and is certainly one for the shortlist, while DIESE DES BIEFFES for Nicky Henderson is another to note if getting into the race. This 5 year-old was a decent fifth in the Lanzarote Hurdle last time at Kempton – only beaten 3 ¼ lengths – but the fact he was sent off favourite for the race suggests connections feel there’s more to come. The stiffer track will also suit after plugging on well last time but didn’t quite have the pace on the flat Kempton track to get to the leaders.
17:30 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2m ½f
We saw Rock The World land this race 12 months ago but off a 6lb higher mark and being another year older suggest his task is a much harder one this time. This has also been another good race for the ratings trend with 6 of the last 7 winners coming between 140-147. The Irish have landed 3 of the last 5, while the trainers to note are Henderson, Nicholls and King.
Respect 5 year-olds from the limited number of runners they’ve a good record, but with 10 of the last 14 winners aged 8 or older this is a safer age bracket to have on your side.
Previous Festival form is another ‘must have’ with 12 of the last 14 winners having that in their locker. Ordinary World, Eastlake, Solar Impulse (previous winner) and Dandridge are regulars in the race so certainly command respect. Last year’s winning stable (Jessie Harrington) look to have another chance with Don’t Touch It, who is also McManus-owned. However, this 8 year-old unseated last time out in Ireland and hadn’t shown much in it’s three races before that to get excited over.
Dresden was 7th in this in 2016 but is 3lbs lower this time and also heads here in rude health after two easy wins at Catterick and Wetherby – if getting into the race he could be very interesting at a big price for the Henry Oliver team.
VANITEUX (e/w) is certainly one that catches the eye and I feel is a horse to have on your side here. This Pipe-trained runner was third in the 2014 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and last seen running Politologue to 13 lengths at Kempton – this will be easier! He was also 4th (beaten 13 lengths) behind Top Notch in the Peterborough Chase this season and having slipped to a mark of 151 is starting to look very well handicapped. This will be the easiest race he’s contested for some time, while his overall chase record isn’t bad – 15 runs, 4 wins, 4 (2nds/3rds).
Of the Henderson runners – THEINVAL (e/w)– looks their best chance. A strongly-run 2m race with a stiff finish looks sure to suit this 8 year-old and off a mark of 141 he’s another that looks weighted to go well. He was third off this rating in the race 12 months ago, but with another year on his back he’ll head here a much stronger horse and has had a similar preparation for this with 3 months off – it’s hard not seeing him play a big role again in a race the Seven Barrows team last won in 2012 and love to target for obvious reasons.