Cheltenham is finally upon us, the Holy Grail for jumps racing fans. It has become the central theme that dominates the season, more than ever before.
Getting winners this week just feels that little bit more special, for trainers, jockeys, owners and punters alike.
As the big kick-off descends tomorrow with the iconic ‘Cheltenham Roar’, here’s our day-by-day guide to Cheltenham 2018…..
Champion Hurdle Day – Tuesday
The opening day is all about the two-mile speedsters over hurdles. The action starts with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, where Getabird will be the latest Willie Mullins-trained runner trying to get the meeting off to a flyer for punters.
The Closutton maestro won three of these from 2013 onwards, but has saddled the beaten favourite in two renewals since. Last month’s Betfair Hurdle scorer Kalashnikov might well give Mullins and Ruby Walsh more heartache and looks a good bet at 9/2.
The deadly duo may not have long to wait however as the impressive Footpad appears to be holding all the aces in the Arkle. He has been faultless so far over fences and will be fancied by many to end the unbeaten record of Saint Calvados – though Harry Whittington’s charge will be no pushover.
In the day one feature event, Buveur D’air is odds-on to retain his crown in the Champion Hurdle. He’s been impressive this season, but faces his first meaningful challenge now. Former winner Faugheen has major questions to answer as he returns to the race for the first time since his 2015 victory.
Later on, Apple’s Jade will have the Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy. She scrapped her way to victory in this race 12 months ago but her wins this season in Ireland over first Nichols Canyon and then Supasundae suggest Gordon Elliott’s six-year-old has improved again. There doesn’t appear anything to stop her bar an accident, though Jer’s Girl could give her a scare at big odds of 16/1.
Queen Mother Champion Chase Day – Wednesday
There is a special lustre that attaches to an unbeaten jumper, until such time as the inevitable happens. Right now, Altior has that glow.
Winner at the last two festivals, Nicky Henderson’s charge bids for glory in the Queen Mother now, having silenced any doubts over his well-being with an impressive Game Spirit win at Newbury last month on his first run of the season. The way he ranged up alongside Tingle Creek winner Politologue and scampered on past really was impressive that afternoon.
Of course, his supporters need look no further than this race last year to see how an unblemished record can blow up. Then it was Douvan, long odds-on to win, that failed to ignite having suffered a mid-race injury. He has not raced since but trainer Mullins believes he’s ready to roll again, though he may now be heading instead for Thursday’s Ryanair Chase.
His stablemate Min, along with last year’s winner Special Tiara, are both gunning for Altior.
The action on Wednesday begins with Samcro taking on the world in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. His owner Michael O’Leary assures us he isn’t the second coming, but everyone remains convinced he just might be. Arguably no other horse this week will carry a burden of expectation quite as severe as Samcro who, to be fair, hasn’t given his followers a moment of doubt this season so far.
The RSA Chase market is dominated by Irish raiders Presenting Percy (winner at the festival last year) and Monalee. Both have their merits but overlook Black Corton at your peril.
Trained by Paul Nicholls, he has been remarkably consistent in running up a winning sequence (seven from eight) since last summer. On his back will be Bryony Frost, one of the stars of the season in Britain for her exploits in the saddle.
Also on day two, the Cross Country Chase. It was once scorned as a novelty event, but has firmly established its position now and is a real thorough test of horsemanship for riders.
The remarkable Tiger Roll is worth looking out for here. He won the Triumph Hurdle in 2014 and last year landed the National Hunt Challenge Cup over four-miles. This would complete a truly unique Festival hat-trick.
The Champion Bumper was once a benefit for the Irish, but the home team has struck with four of the last eight winners. At 8/1, Anthony Honeyball’s Acey Milan could land another blow for the British trainers in the day two finale.
Stayers’ Hurdle Day – Thursday
The Stayers’ Hurdle will see Supasundae bidding to give his trainer Jessica Harrington the career Grand Slam of Cheltenham’s feature races. He ran out a fine winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle last month over two-miles, but his trainer remained committed to this festival three-miler.
In his path could be Sam Spinner, winner of Britain’s key trial for this race at Ascot in December and not spotted since. He’s improving rapidly in staying hurdles lately and some have suggested Jedd O’Keefe’s six-year-old could go and dominate this division.
Add into the mix Yanworth, Lil Rockerfeller and festival regular The New One and there is sufficient depth to suggest this will be a real battle.
There won’t be a dry eye in the Cotswolds if Cue Card can win the Ryanair Chase at odds of 11/2 on Thursday.
Colin Tizzard’s veteran showed he still has plenty spark at Ascot last month and bids to sign off his Cheltenham career by winning the race for a second time. There’s no more popular horse and he’d be an insanely pleasing winner for neutrals. He faces last year’s winner and ‘iron horse’ Un De Sceaux in what could be a firecracker, as his stablemate Douvan is also seemingly now heading for this race.
Kicking things off on Thursday is the JLT Novices’ Chase, as Willie Mullins goes in search of a fourth straight win in the race, with Invitation Only his main hope.
Shattered Love, for Elliott, and Colin Tizzard’s Finian’s Oscar could be the ones to serve it up to him.
Cheltenham Gold Cup Day – Friday
The Blue Ribband has lost its star in defending champ Sizing John, sadly, but there remains a fiercely competitive field vowing for his title.
Heading them is ‘marmite horse’ Might Bite, the favourite at 3/1 for trainer Nicky Henderson. His unforgettable RSA Chase win last year rubber-stamped a worrying quirk, that sees him seemingly wandering right-handed after jumping the last at this track.
Despite having answered every question since, some are not willing to forgive the King George winner that blot on his copybook.
Questions have also been asked of his stamina but, if anything, the way he rallied to win a year ago here should affirm that he will last out over 3m 2f in the Gold Cup.
Native River, third last year, has been held back this season with this race in mind, while last year’s Irish National winner Our Duke will represent Harrington and Robbie Power with Sizing John at home.
Road To Respect is the improver in the pack, while Definitly Red showed in the Cotswold Chase here in January that he’s a big player on softer ground. Jumps racing’s most coveted prize must crown a new champion on Friday; that much we do know!
The Triumph Hurdle opens proceeding on Friday and Henderson along with Barry Geraghty will be aiming to extend their remarkable records in the race with Apple’s Shakira.
The half-sister to Apple’s Jade has done nothing but impress since she arrived from France and has won three trials at the track for her big target. She’s been versatile in doing so, winning on and off the bridle. She’s 11/4 to win here and while she gets a 7lb allowance from the boys, Sir Anthony McCoy has recently suggested
that she’d win giving away 7lb, far less getting it. Will she justify the hype?
What a week in store. Four days of jumps racing without equal….buckle up and prepare to be thrilled.