13:30 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle 2m 5f
This has been a very good race for the Irish in recent years with 7 winners in the last 12 runnings, including three of the last four runnings, and with a certain horse called Samcro leading the way for the Emerald Isle this year, it could be more of the same in 2018.
Yes, all eyes here will be on the horse dubbed ‘The Monster’ – SAMCRO. This Gordon Elliott-trained 6 year-old has been all the rage for this for most of the season but bolstered his claims with another very easy win in the Deliotte Novices’ Hurdle at Leopardstown last time.
He looks sure to go off odds-on – how short will depend on what’s happened to the previous ‘hot-pots’ at the Festival but not matter what will come into the race as many people’s main banker.
That recent 5 ½ length victory took his tally to 6-from-6 and being a horse with an already growing reputation then anything other than a win here will be seen as a major disappointing from his army of fans. So, can he be beaten?
For me, he has looked super-impressive and although it’s very easy to get caught-up in all the hype – let’s be honest we’ve all been here before – there is no mistaking he does look a bit special.
He beat a horse called Jetz a few starts ago and that one could be the benchmark, with one of his main dangers – Next Destination (Willie Mullins) – having also beaten that one.
Samcro, however, trounced Jetz by an easy 12 lengths, whereas Next Destination, who don’t forget, was also 4th in the Champion Bumper last season, has beaten that same horse 7 and 8 lengths.
However, Gordon Elliott, who handles Samcro, also trains a horse called Cracking Smart that was only a length behind Next Destination this season so must know where he stands with this Mullins runner. Mullins does have a fine record in this race though – winning it four times since 2008. He could also another live chance with Duc Des Genievres, who also looks better value.
This 5 year-old was 5 ¼ lengths back in second at the track behind Samcro last time out, so despite being lightly-raced (3 career runs) would need to find a bit more improvement and fairly rapidly. Black Op is a player too. He was a close second to Santini, who is well-fancied for the Albert Bartlett on Friday and will love it if the ground remained soft. Before that he won by 17 lengths at Doncaster and also had some useful bumper form last season – he can go well.
The consistent Vision Des Flos would be an interesting outsider for the Colin Tizzard yard in a race that is starting to lack depth and I’d not be shocked to see him run into a place. He was an easy 31 length winner at Exeter last time and certainly won’t mind the ground. On The Blind Side would have been a big threat to the favourite but Henderson’s horse misses the Festival now which clearly makes Samcro’s task that bit easier. The Elliott yard feel they’ve got a good one on their hands here and I agree.
14:10 RSA Chase 3m ½f
Last year’s Pertemps Final Hurdle winner – Presenting Percy – will be extremely popular here after making a very good transition to chasing this season.
He’s won two of his four starts over the bigger obstacles and wasn’t disgraced when finishing second to Our Duke last time. 7 year-olds have landed 8 of the last 10 runnings of this race, while the Irish have won 5 of the last 9 runnings – he ticks both those main stats.
There is no mistaking he’s a big player and with Festival-winning form he also knows what this meeting is all about – 8 of the last 11 winners had run at the Festival the season before. However, for me, he’s also a horse that doesn’t seem great value and also looked a bit vulnerable last time at Gowran Park.
Yes, that run came over 2m4f – a trip on the sharp side for him – but that would have also been the case for the winner that day – Our Duke. In short, I just think there are a few others in the race with similar chances so at the prices would rather be siding with them.
The Paul Nicholls stable last won in 2007 with Denman and although Black Corton is certainly not the new tank, he’s a 7 year-old that has vastly improved this season. He’s now won 8 of his 11 chase starts and been second in the other three, while he’s also 2-from-2 here at Cheltenham over fences. With 22 career starts then he’s also one of the more experienced and has built-up a fabulous partnership with jockey Bryony Frost.
He likes to do things out in front and, yes, this might set the race up for something else but he also stays this 3m trip very well. He looks one of the decent options away from Percy. It would also be foolish to overlook any Willie Mullins runner – he’s won the race four times, with Don Poli (2015) and Cooldine (2009) his most recent.
AL BOUM PHOTO, with Ruby Walsh riding, was a fine second last time out at Leopardstown and the way he finished that day suggests there could be a lot more on offer over this 3m trip. At 6 years-old does have this age stat against him, but he looks a horse with more to come and looks decent each-way value. Dounikos was a close fourth behind Al Boum Photo in that Leopardstown race so can’t be discounted either for the Gordon Elliott team.
However, the horse that won that Leopardstown race – The Flogas Novice’s Chase – could be the answer – step forward MONALEE. This 7 year-old did it the hard way from the front that day and with 4 of the last 9 winners of this race having run in that contest then it’s clearly a good very guide to this race. He was also second in the Albert Bartlett at the Festival 12 months ago and that’s been another decent route for past winners – 5 of the last 8 winners also ran in that race. Yes, he took a tumble two starts back, so that’s a slight concern, but the way he jumped last time suggests the Henry de Bromhead camp have done a lot of work with him since.
Ok, he only won by ¾ of a length last time and had a lot of the others stacked up behind but you got the impression he was always holding the rest of the field and had more in the locker. If he’d not fallen two starts ago then he’d probably be heading here 3-from-3 over fences and with that would also arguably be coming into this race as the favourite. Noel Fehily, who rode him in his last race, continues in the saddle.
14:50 Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m 5f
Always a tough contest to solve and this year is certainly no different. Some key stats to note though so these should at least help narrow down the big field. It’s been a terrible race for favourite backers in recent years with not a single winning market leader in the last 14 years – it is, however, worth pointing out 11 of the last 12 winners did come from the top 7 in the betting. 7 of the last 9 also hailed from the top 8 horses in the weights – indicating that the cream generally does rise the top here.
Trainers Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott are both 2 from 8 in recent years, while this is another race leading owner JP McManus focus on. He’s sure to have several entered with The Organist, Project Bluebook and River Frost his entries. Diamond King – is a past winner of the race, but at 10 years-old I’d be worried about that. 10+ year-old are only 2 from 30 to even place since 1999! Mullins has the Ricci-owned Max Dynamite, who would be very interesting off a mark of just 141.
This 8 year-old is a high-class flat performer that has been 2nd and 3rd in the last two Melbourne Cups. He’s only raced 8 times over hurdles – winning once – but he’s also tasted the Festival before when 4th in Wicklow Brave’s County Hurdle in 2015. Soft ground is fine and his proven flat speed would be a huge asset in a race like this.
Henderson could have WILLIAM HENRY and this consistent 8 year-old makes plenty of appeal. He reverted back to hurdles, after being pulled up over fences at Cheltenham in November, to win the Lanzarote Hurdle at the end of January. A 6lb hike for that looks fair and despite being an 8 year-old he’s another lightly-raced Henderson runner with just 9 career outings. His form over hurdles at Cheltenham is very solid too 2-2-1, plus he tends to go well off a break so 2 months on the sidelines is not a concern.
The talented James Bowen continues in the saddle and takes off a handy 3lbs too – Henderson has used him a fair bit this season to take advantage of his claim so that also catches the eye again here. Henderson also runs Burbank wo ran a much better race to be third last at Ascot and can’t be ruled out either.
The Ben Pauling pair of Red Indian and Le Breuil are others to note, especially the last-named who will have Nico De Boinville riding. This 6 year-old was a fair second last time at Aintree but has only had two runs this season so will head here fresher than most and gets in here off the same rating (139) as last time. TOPOFTHEGAME also looks an interesting entry for the Paul Nicholls stable that took this race in 2015 – he’ll be my second play in the race. He was 4th to William Henry (2 2/4 lengths) in the Lanzarote Hurdle but built on that last time when winning at Sandown. He stays further than this distance and that will be a big asset in conditions.
15:30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m
Another fascinating race to look forward to at this season’s Festival, with all eyes being on last year’s Arkle winner – ALTIOR.
Yes, he’s had a few issues over the summer and had wind surgery too, but I think it’s fair to say that op worked! With punters not sure if he’d return the same horse, or not, his reappearance run at Newbury in the Betfair Exchange Chase was always going to be key.
However, he bolted-up by an easy 4 lengths that day and had this season’s Tingle Creek winner – Politologue – trailing back in second, so it’s hard to see that Paul Nicholls-trained 7 year-old turning the tables on Altior.
Yes, some people might look to the dreaded ‘bounce factor’, or the fact he’s only been out once since last April, but let’s not forget he’s now 7-from-7 over fences. He’s also gone well fresh in the past and backed that up in his following race too, so there is little reason to take him on.
He’s a two-time Festival winner, after taking the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and last season’s Arkle, while he had one of his main rivals in this race – Min – 7 lengths back in that Supreme.
Okay, some might feel the Willie Mullins-trained Min has improved since and the way he won at Leopardstown in February was impressive – but, let’s get one thing straight – he didn’t have an Altior in that race!
Of course, Min is still a very decent horse and he’s 4 from 5 over fences, but he did get beaten at 2/7 on over Christmas so is vulnerable, while – did you know his trainer – Willie Mullins – is yet to win this race?
Some might feel he’s also got a bit to prove at the track – we’ll see. Douvan is the other potential fly in the ointment, if returning to his best. He was sent off the short-priced favourite in this 12 months ago but ran no sort of race to be 7th. That clearly wasn’t his true running and he was found to be injured after the race. There was talk of him running in Thursday’s Ryanair at one stage too, however, this is now the preferred route with Rich Ricci now firing two of his ‘big-guns’ at Altior.
Douvan has been off the track since we saw him in this race 12 months ago, so a lot has to be taken on trust if he’ll return the same horse as we saw winning 9 times over fences. Of the rest, it would be foolish to totally rule out the current champion – SPECIAL TIARA. This 11 year-old likes to get on with the job and can be expected to make a bold bid from the front again. With little depth to the race outside the main players he rates the best of the rest and if you are looking for an alternative to backing Altior then siding with the reigning champ each-way would not be the worst shout in the world.
16:10 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase 3m 7f
Often referred to as the ‘marmite race’ of the Festival with punters either loving it or heading to the bar. Run over the unique Cross Country fences it’s always a spectacle though and, for me, personally a nice addition to the Festival since it was first run in 2005.
The Irish often do very well in the contest – landing it 11 times in the last 13 runnings – and in particular trainer Enda Bolger, who has won the race four times. He looks to have the 2016 winner – Josie’s Orders – as his main hope, who has won over this course three times.
He’s very closely-matched with another Bolger runner in Auvergnat after the pair were separated by just a short-head last time at Punchestown, but now off level weights, Josie’s Orders, who was giving away 2lbs, should have the advantage this time. Bolger also has Cantlow but at 13 years-old he’s not getting any younger.
Do note this*Bolger Warning* though. Every year when this race is mentioned the first thing that crops into most people’s minds is trainer Enda Bolger! Yes, he’s won the race many times before but it’s worth noting that the Bolger stable actually last won this race in 2009 and currently head here 0 from their last 23 runners. Therefore, we can often get carried away when talking about the Bolger good record in the race. It’s clear in recent years that his domination in the race has tailed off, with other trainers – who have some decent handicappers – now targeting the prize.
With that in mind, it’s hard to get away from last year’s winner – CAUSE OF CAUSES. We can try and find reasons to take this Gordon Elliott runner on but really we’d be clutching at straws. He powered away to win by 9 lengths 12 months ago and followed that up with a second in the Aintree Grand National.
He blew away the cobwebs last month at Leopardstown over an inadequate 2m5f trip and should be spot on for this.
He also loves the Festival – fact! He’s now won at this meeting for the last three seasons (all different races), so clearly loves this place. At just 10 years-old he should also have more to come and we all love the returning champions coming back to defend their titles. He’s the pick with the best jockey in the race – Jamie Codd – in the plate again!
Of the others, the 13 year-old BLESS THE WINGS is another that often runs well in these Cross Country races. Okay, he’s not getting any younger but his recent form at the track reads 3-4-2-2-2-1 – plus has been runner-up in this race for the last two years. It could easily be an Elliott 1-2 in the race again. Actually, it could easily be an Elliott 1-2-3 as he’s also got Tiger Roll entered.
This 8 year-old is a two-time Festival winner after taking the 2014 Triumph and then the 4m race 12 months ago. The word on the grapevine – a bit like we heard about Cause Of Causes last year – is that he’s excelled over these fences. Elliott has a similar course set up at home – and with proven winning form at this meeting he’s could be a real threat to the current champ.
Finally, popular Grand National horse – The Last Samuri – also leaps off the page on these terms. Yes, he’s never run over these fences, but Kim Bailey schooled him over them last week and by all accounts he really took to them. Off a mark of 159 then he’s very well-in off level weights here and could surprise – after all, he has completed the National course at Aintree several times so that must be a help. However, it is worth pointing out horses having their first run over these fences/course are currently just 1 from 53.
16:50 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m ½f
As always, a super-tough renewal so there is no harm firing a few bullets at the race.
In recent years, this has been a very poor contest for the Willie Mullins camp – they are currently 0-from-12 – while none of those were placed in the top 5 either. However, with those desperate stats, maybe Willie has finally given up on the race as he’s not even got an entry this year!
In contrast, the Paul Nicholls stable love to win the Fred Winter – with 3 victories since 2010, including 2 in the last 3 runnings. Don’t be put off if your fancy is a big price either – 5 of the last 6 winners of this returned 25/1 or bigger.
Nicholls does have another leading chance with Act Of Valour, who ran a fair race behind Triumph Hurdle fancy We Have A Dream, recently. This 4 year-old looked to have more to give and only got tired in the closing stages that day which would have given Nicholls something to work with. He’s certainly feared with the yards top record in the race and with only three hurdles runs we can expect more – however, it’s interesting that we’ve not seen a winner of this defy a mark higher than 134 – Act of Valour is rated 136.
Nicholls running French-breds has also been a very good angle into this race in recent years too – so another that fits the bill here is Nicholls’ GRAND SANCY who was a fair fourth last time at Kempton and he’ll be another I’ll be playing in the race. Another fancied horse that would fall down on this rating trend is the 139-rated Gordon Elliott-trained Mitchouka. Yes, this 4 year-old has caught the eye in winning his last two, but that is too much of a significant stat to overlook in my book.
Henderson’s Style De Garde and the Skelton-trained Nube Negra are others popular ones in the betting that fall down on that rating trend but I do think there is more to come from Style De Garde. He flopped last time behind Esprit De Somoza, who represents last year’s winning yard, but that was a strangely-run race and on a more galloping track he’d be foolish to ignore. Look My Way is a classy sort too and he ran well for much of the way behind Apple’s Shakira last time at Cheltenham.
I certainly wouldn’t put anyone off him and off a mark of 135 he only just falls outside the rating trend. For me, the interesting one is the Gary Moore-trained French-bred ERAGON DE CHANAY. This 4 year-old won very easily at Sandown on Saturday so we know he’ll head here in red-hot form. He seemed to love conditions there so he’ll get more of the same here. Yes, running two races inside a week might be tough but he didn’t have a hard time at the weekend and has clearly come out of that contest well for the Moore camp to be running him.
Of the rest, with some many entries then it’s hard to get away from the Alan King stable too. King’s, LISP is one that also ticks a lot of boxes. This 4 year-old has won two of this last three and despite disappointing a bit last time that came over a slightly shorter trip and he raced a bit too keen. This longer trip and a strong-run race should see him in a better light and he’s another to have on the shortlist with Wayne Hutchinson riding.
17:30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m ½f
Another race that not every Cheltenham punter likes or even bothers to have a bet in, but regardless it will give us a chance to see some potential stars of the future – not only the winners, but horses that have run well in this too. In 2010 we saw Cue Card win and look what he’s gone onto do!
It’s also a contest the Irish have dominated in recent years – they currently lead the British 19-7, while this race rarely gets written about without a certain Willie Mullins getting the bulk of the column space. Yes, Mullins has won the race a staggering 8 times, so it goes without saying anything he sends to post should be respected.
However, it’s also worth noting he does generally fire a lot of bullets at the race and currently he’s actually only 2 from his last 29 runners. He last took this in 2012 and 2013 – so we are now 4 years without a Mullins winner. Maybe he’s due one!
This has also been a race surrounded with hype, gambles and talking horses so it can often be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff – they can’t all win!
Of the Mullins runners this year Blackbow is their main talking horse. This 5 year-old caught the eye when winning last time out at Leopardstown, beating what looked a decent field but at this stage it’s still hard to know how good he might be. What I would say though is Mullins has won this race with 12/1, 16/1 and 25/1 in the last 10 years so certainly don’t get put off looking at some of his other runners in the field – Tornado Flyer, Carefully Selected, Relegate, Colreevy and Squadron Commander could be Mullins’ bigger-priced entries in the field.
These lightly-raced NH horses can often improve a lot from one race to the next so even the yards sometimes find it hard to get it right. This is further backed-up with only 1 winning favourite in the last 10 years winning (Moon Racer, 2015).
Gigginstown-owned horses are not often seen in the race so it’s interesting they are sending FELIX DESJY over. This 5 year-old is yet to lose and also hails from the Gordon Elliott stable that won this 12 months ago – he looks one for the shortlist mainly based on the fact these connections rarely have a runner in the race – so why have they this year?
Rhinestone has 1 ½ lengths to find with Blackbow based on their Leopardstown runs last time, but with the stiffer finish you can’t rule out that form being turned around. Of the British-trained runners Acey Milan has certainly won many fans in winning his last three, including one here at Cheltenham. With 4 career outings he’s also one of the more experienced in the field, but I would be worried that we’ve only seen one 4 year-old win the race in the last 21 years (Cue Card).
Generally, this goes to something a little bit less exposed too – Acey Milan has already had 4 runs. The other main British hope though is DIDTHEYLEAVEUOUTTO and this Nick Gifford runner was very eye-catching when winning last time at Ascot back in December. He’s not been out since but he beat a decent field that day and the vibes since have been very positive for this JP McManus runner.
The Flying Sofa was back in third that day so can’t be totally ruled out either. This Gary Moore runner has since franked the form by winning next time too and of those at a big price he’s respected.
Finally, THEBANNERKINGREBEL comes from the Jamie Snowden yard and they did well in this race 12 months ago with Dans Le Vent running sixth in the race. Their runner this year has done little wrong by winning his two starts and with the last one coming with 11-10 on heavy ground then it was even more impressive. I speak to the yard a lot and I know they think a lot of the horse and if making the final line-up can run better than his odds suggest.