The waiting is almost over for jumps racing fans. The Olympics of racing, the greatest show on turf…call it what you will, the Cheltenham Festival is just one week away now!
The ‘Beast From The East’ is going to have to make way for an outbreak of ‘Cheltenham Fever’. Here are some horses to watch out for over the four-day extravaganza in the Cotswolds.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – Claimantakinforgan
Nicky Henderson’s charge has already got Festival form on his side, having finished third behind flying filly Fayonagh in last season’s Champion Bumper. He opened his hurdles career with impressive successes at Newbury and Ascot before Christmas then got turned over at odds-on in his Festival prep race at Musselburgh last month.
He was beaten less than two lengths there and should be capable of bouncing back. Henderson has won the Festival curtain-raiser three times before and, at a nice each-way price of 11/1, Claimantakinforgan could go well back in the Cotswolds.
Racing Post Arkle – Footpad
A pretty impressive performer over hurdles, Footpad has taken his form to new levels since going novice chasing this season. The Willie Mullins-trained runner has sparkled in each of his three successes in Ireland so far and is, rightly, the red-hot favourite to win the Arkle. The six-year-old travels stylishly and jumps with such clean-cut accuracy and precision that he piles the pressure on his rivals at every obstacle.
He looks tailor-made for this Festival race and, in just the second race of the meeting, will be carrying the hopes of scores of punters.
Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase – De Plotting Shed
How aptly-named could this Gordon Elliott contender prove to be in the concluding race on day one? Leading trainer at the Festival a year ago, Elliott has seemingly been planning a course to the Cotswolds for the eight-year-old and he will be delighted to find De Plotting Shed allotted a mark that is 7lb lower than his hurdles rating for this contest.
His run behind RSA Chase favourite Presenting Percy earlier this season stands out and the 5/1 available on De Plotting Shed may disappear before March 13.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – Samcro
Has any horse in Britain or Ireland had more column inches devoted to them this season than Samcro? It is very unlikely. The Gigginstown House-owned star in the making has not put a foot wrong in three wins over hurdles (having previously been unbeaten in three bumpers).
He appears to rely on neither ground nor trip and is going to be the ‘Festival Banker’ for many.
He had options in all of the novice hurdles races, but connections had this one earmarked from some way off. He’s already been touted as a Gold Cup winner of the future, so no pressure to deliver then Samcro!
RSA Chase – Monalee
The aforementioned Presenting Percy is a big player with plenty going for him in the RSA, but he may have it all on to get the measure of the Henry De Bromhead-trained 7/2 chance Monalee. He was a faller at Leopardstown over Christmas, but showed no ill-effects when returning to win at the Dublin Racing Festival in February.
Jumping like a stag throughout, he fought off challengers on all sides in the run to the line for a very game success. If he gets his jumping right again at Cheltenham, it will require a gutsy contender to go by him coming up the hill.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Altior
Unbeaten over jumps and already a two-time Cheltenham Festival scorer, if he’s not already there, then Altior is fast-tracking himself towards the title of being the most exciting jumps horse in training. He’s already the darling of Nicky Henderson’s eye and, after an initial setback late last year, he was brilliant on his reappearance at Newbury when winning the Game Spirit Chase.
The wind operation he underwent may even have improved this superstar and it will be a treat to see him going full tilt in the Queen Mother. Old rival Min, and perhaps even Douvan, will look to find some chinks in his armour but, as of now, there don’t seem to be any. A must-see race for any racing fan.
Ryanair Chase – Un De Sceaux
When the great Willie Mullins refers to an ‘iron horse’ it truly is time to sit up and take notice. Earlier this season Ruby Walsh suggested Un De Sceaux is denied the credit he deserves simply because he is so consistent.
His Ryanair victory last March was something to behold, as he ran amuck in front, with Walsh something of a passenger on his back. But he showed true guts to see the race out when many were predicting he would fall on his own sword late on.
Now ten years old, can he do it again? He’s the 5/2 favourite for the Ryanair Chase but the challengers are queuing up – with Waiting Patiently, Top Notch and the brilliant veteran and former winner Cue Card amongst those ready to have a pop. With Un De Sceaux, it is certain to be a seat of the pants ride all the way.
Stayers’ Hurdle – The New One
A standing dish at the Cheltenham Festival since 2013, The New One has contested four successive Champion Hurdles with distinction but just came up short amongst the best two-milers. Some will question if trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has waited too long to allow his adored stable star a shot at the three-mile Championship race – he’s now ten years young and would have to bridge a 32-year gap since Crimson Embers (aged 11) won this race if he’s to prevail.
The New One hasn’t shown any signs of slowing up yet, he won a Haydock Grade 2 in gutsy fashion in January on very testing ground.
Will his stamina hold out over three-miles? That is the big question. He’s 10/1 to win the Stayers’ Hurdle and, with his locally-based trainer, there will be shrieks of joy across the Cotswolds if he can grab a second Festival success.
Triumph Hurdle – Apple’s Shakira
Might as well go ahead and say it, this Henderson-trained filly is my idea of the Festival Nap at 5/2 in the Triumph Hurdle betting. Ever since the positive murmurs developed into a surge of money ahead of her British debut at the track in October, she has solidified the notion that she’ll be a bit special.
She’s has won three trials for this race at the track, winning with consummate ease at times and also coming off the bridle and fighting too, something that will stand her in good stead.
Her Seven Barrows handler has won this race a record six times, while Barry Geraghty is set to be on board and has won the Triumph five times (three for Henderson). She has the best form in the book, knows the track inside out and the boys will be conceding her 7lb. What is there not to like?
Cheltenham Gold Cup – Might Bite
Last year’s infamous RSA Chase winner is favourite for the Gold Cup now at 10/3 and it is hard to quibble with his form. His quirky finish last March (massively quirky, admittedly) didn’t detract from the fact he showed insane guts to rally and collar Whisper on the line. From that moment on, he’s been faultless.
He won the King George after burning off Bristol De Mai and is the only Gold Cup contender without a black mark this season. Sizing John flopped at Christmas and hasn’t been seen since, while Native River might be undercooked with just one easy win at Newbury behind him. Might Bite deserves to be favourite and he may give Nicky Henderson yet more Festival history if the Seven Barrows handler becomes the first to win the Crown Jewels (Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup) all in one season. It will be heart in mouth time if he jumps the last with a lead, but Might Bite appears to have matured and his rivals cannot count on another act of charity.
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