Cheltenham Fever is about to take over the sporting world. Four-days of brilliant jumps racing in the Cotswolds is ahead of us next week. It’s like Christmas in the springtime for those of us that love jumps racing.
As we count down to Tuesday’s big kick-off, here is a look ahead to the flagship races of the Cheltenham Festival.
Champion Hurdle (Tuesday)
All eyes on reigning champion Buveur D’air here, the odds-on jolly to retain his crown. Nicky Henderson’s charge has been faultless since his win last March but his three wins this season have amounted to little in terms of posing serious questions. Will he be vulnerable when the gun is pointed to his head on Tuesday?
Former winner Faugheen could be joined by stablemate Yorkhill, a combination with more questions to answer than a Cluedo convention following recent efforts. Willie Mullins could also fire Melon and Mick Jazz at this race but perhaps the one to run into a place at a price is 14/1 shot Wicklow Brave, not spotted since the Melbourne Cup in November, though last seen over timber defeating My Tent Or Yours at Punchestown in the spring.
British challengers Elgin and Ch’tibello have to improve surely, but the three-time runner-up My Tent Or Yours should not be dismissed despite his aging years.
Queen Mother Champion Chase (Wednesday)
Unbeaten jumper Altior is the star of the show coming into this race and ranks a solid 8/11 favourite to make it a perfect 13 wins over obstacles. There were some doubts about him after a wind operation late last year but the manner in which he swatted aside Tingle Creek winner Politologue in last month’s Game Spirit at Newbury was very pleasing. He should have more to give and is going to be a very hard nut to crack.
Those aiming to take his measure all have clouds over them. Min, second-favourite at 11/4, tends to race keenly and that could prove very costly in the white heat of battle here. Stablemate Douvan lost his unbeaten record in this very race a year ago and hasn’t been seen since. On his best form, he’d be a massive player, but that is to be taken on trust.
On their Newbury form, Politologue is going to do well to lay any sort of blow on Altior, while last year’s winner Special Tiara has not shown anything like his best form this season.
Everything points to a win for Altior and he is very hard to oppose, despite the prohibitive odds.
Ryanair Chase (Thursday)
Un De Sceaux returns looking to defend his crown in this race. He looks as good as ever this season and has been described by Willie Mullins as the ‘iron horse’.
A tearaway in his youth, this likeable performer has developed steel and determination through his career and is much more conventional in his racing style to boot. Make no mistake, dislodging him on the likely softish going will be no easy task.
The veteran Cue Card returns to this race having failed to win a Gold Cup. He is the most popular chaser in training and a win for Colin Tizzard’s 12-year-old would bring the house down. Cue Card is 13/2 to score and his recent effort at Ascot behind Waiting Patiently bodes well.
The pair served up a real treat and that form stands up to scrutiny. Ruth Jefferson’s charge is also entered here but may not line up. That being the case, write Cue Card off at your peril.
Henry De Bromhead’s pair of Balko Des Flos and Sub Lieutenant, second in the race last year and perhaps underestimated at 20/1 now, are others that merit serious consideration in what should be a firecracker.
Stayers’ Hurdle (Thursday)
Having run the brilliant mare Apple’s Jade so close at Christmas and then taken Faugheen’s measure in the Irish Champion Hurdle over two-miles recently, Supasundae is the ante-post favourite for this race.
He’ll be bidding to give his trainer Jessica Harrington a complete set of the Championship races at the Festival in her career (Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother, Stayers’, Gold Cup) and has rock-solid credentials of doing so at 4/1.
Worth recalling that Yanworth beat him at Aintree in the spring last year when they clashed last. Alan King’s charge has been diverted back over hurdles for this contest and, while he has his critics, he didn’t do all that much wrong this season over fences and should not be scorned.
Sam Spinner is the British form-horse this term but it is a concern he hasn’t run since winning the Long Walk at Ascot before Christmas. His desire to make all could also be a worry in this field.
There is also the intriguing sight of festival-regular The New One finally lining up in this race. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ charge is 10/1 and will have to defy the trends to win as a 10-year-old. He has however looked good this season and, if his stamina holds, he could be a big threat at a venue where he always gives his all.
Cheltenham Gold Cup (Friday)
The most prestigious event on the jumps racing calendar and the centrepiece of these four days in the Cotswolds, this year’s renewal is just as appetising as ever.
Might Bite heads the betting at 10/3 for Nicky Henderson, who could be bidding to become the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup in one year if things go to plan for the Master of Seven Barrows.
The rogue that almost tossed away victory in the RSA Chase a year ago, Might Bite has been flawless since that moment of madness. He won the King George last time out and is the form pick as such. This is his acid test however, in terms of opposition and of facing that Cheltenham hill once again for the first time since last March.
Native River, third in this race last season, has been given a sparing campaign by trainer Colin Tizzard in an effort to boost his hopes and he looked good at Newbury on his reappearance. Road To Respect won a key trial in Ireland at Christmas and commands respect, as does Our Duke after a confidence booster at Gowran Park, though he’ll have to jump better here.
Definitly Red won the Cotswold Chase and could flourish if the mud if flying but reigning champion Sizing John is perhaps the one getting in under the radar.
He swept all before him last spring and looked just as good when winning the John Durkan on his return. Such was the ease with which he won that Jessica Harrington permitted a quick turnaround for Leopardstown at Christmas, where Sizing John was a pale shadow of himself.
Every horse can be forgiven an off-day, particularly when there are mitigating circumstances. Take out that run and his claims are very strong of becoming the first back-to-back Gold Cup hero since Best Mate.
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