Here we go! The four best days on the National Hunt calendar are upon us. 28 races down at Cleeve Hill where stories are written and stars are made. The weather hasn’t been too good in the lead up to the Cheltenham Festival but the racing is set to be red hot. It all begins on Tuesday and here is our look at the undercard to the Champion Hurdle on the opening day.
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1.30 Cheltenham: Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The opening race of the eagerly awaited 4 day Cheltenham Festival and this has a very open feel to it. 18 runners are expected to go to post and, as it stands, there’s 4 battling it out to be favourite.
Al Dancer is 4 from 4 over hurdles and comes here after winning the competitive Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Ascot last time. He could be top class and the same could be said about Angel’s Breath who has only been seen over hurdles twice. He’s more about potential than achievement.
Klassical Dream has been well backed since being declared for this rather than the Ballymore whilst Fakir D’Oudairies has gone the other way in the market after choosing this over the Triumph Hurdle. It will be difficult for the latter to land this as he’s just a 4 year old, albeit he gets an 8lb allowance.
Elixir De Nutz is a Grade 1 winner after landing the Tolworth Hurdle and has won his last 3 including 2 here. He is a front runner, a style that seems well suited to this race, and his battling quality should help him here in the same way they’ve served him well in all his races this term. What is particularly impressive is his jumping and speed over the hurdles which should not be underestimated here. It’ll take a seriously good horse to pass him up the Cheltenham hill.
At a bigger price, Vision D’Honneur from the Gordon Elliott yard should not be dismissed. He was incredibly impressive when landing a maiden hurdle at Punchestown in January but failed to follow that up when 3rd behind Klassical Dream and Aramon last time in a Grade 1. He could well turn the tables here as he looked desperately in need of softer ground which he should get here. The stiffer track should suit.
With no standout candidate, this race is all about the each way value and, at the current odds, we’ll side with both Elixir De Nutz and Vision D’Honneur in the opener.
Back Elixir De Nutz (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 9.00 William Hill (⅕ odds 1-7)
Back Vision D’Honneur (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 13.00 William Hill (⅕ odds 1-7)
Back them here:
2.10 Cheltenham: Arkle Novices’ Chase
12 runners for this and one angle to consider here is a horse that was classy over the smaller obstacles and his some track form.
This leads me to Kalashnikov who has drifted to a more than backable price after his defeat last time out. He was high class over hurdles, winning the Betfair at Newbury before just failing by a neck in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle here 12 months ago, only giving way to Summerville Boy. He won his first 2 starts over fences at long odds but has finished 2nd on his last 2 runs. His jumping has proved a little suspect at times but I’m convinced it’s a concentration thing rather than a genuine ability issue. This bigger field and a faster pace will help and 10/1 looks a big price.
Only time will tell whether Glen Forsa, who slammed Kalashnikov last time out and is 3 from 3 over fences, is better on a flatter track. Lalor might just prefer better ground.
Duc Des Genievres is likely to run well whilst Paloma Blue would have a chance if he improves his jumping.
Another open heat and Kalashnikov seems to offer the best value.
Back Kalashnikov (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 11.00 BetVictor (⅕ odds 1-4)
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2.50 Cheltenham: Ultima Handicap Chase
As usual, a very competitive handicap chase with fancied runners recently holding sway. The last 5 winners of this have all started at 11/1 or shorter Course form is also very much an advantage here.
There are many in with chances but the selection is Minella Rocco from the Jonjo O’Neill yard. The stable has been responsible for 3 of the last 10 winners of this and this one looks well capable of making it a 4th success. He needs to rediscover his form but, back in a handicap, he is dangerously well treated and this former Gold Cup runner up is the class act in this field.
Interestingly, he goes with a tongue tie and cheekpieces, having only been tried in one or the other before and hopefully that will do the trick. A couple of other stats in his favour too are that 3 of the last 8 winners had their prep run over hurdles (Minella Rocco had a spin over the smaller obstacles last time) whilst the last 6 winners, like our selection, all ran on Cheltenham Trials Day back in January.
Back Minella Rocco (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 9.00 Skybet (⅕ odds 1-6)
4.10 Cheltenham: Mares’ Hurdle
A race that has been dominated by Willie Mullins, and especially multiple winner Quevega, this year looks to be no different on paper.
15 runners are expected to line up over 2 miles 4 furlongs with last year’s winner, Benie Des Dieux, the warm favourite. She has not been out this season but Mullins doesn’t see that as an issue and she’s definitely high class as she showed when outpointing Apples Jade in this 12 months ago. For betting purposes, we should be looking at taking her out of the equation and betting without the favourite.
To emphasise Mullins’ strength in this race, he also has Limini and Stormy Ireland occupying the 2nd and 3rd places in the betting market. The most likely UK winner, on paper at least, is Lady Buttons but this trip may stretch her, especially with the bigger field and fast pace.
At longer odds, the first one I like is yet another Mullins runner, Elimay. She was formerly decent on soft ground in France and, since going to Ireland, has run once (at the back end of last year) when she travelled best and finished 2nd to Good Thyne Tara. That was after an absence of 12 months so it is likely we will see some improvement here. The easy ground is sure to suit and a big run is on the cards.
Momella, ridden by Noel Fehily, is a ridiculously big price but does have lots to prove on her form this season. However, on last season’s form, she’d be one of the market leaders, I’m sure. In her 2 runs here, she was 2nd in a Grade 2 novice hurdle and then won a handicap (on soft). Her next run saw her finish a good 3rd in a top quality novice hurdle at Aintree’s Grand National meeting. Both her runs this year have been over 3 miles and she was making good progress in the Long Distance Hurdle when falling 2 out but, worryingly, she was pulled up sharply a month later. If she’s recovered from that, she will almost certainly outrun her odds.
Back Elimay (e/w) in the ‘without Benie Des Dieux’ market for a 1/10 stake at 11.00 Betfair Sportsbook (⅕ odds 1-3)
Back Momella (e/w) in the ‘without Benie Des Dieux’ market for a 0.5/10 stake at 21.00 Betfair (⅕ odds 1-3)
Back them here:
4.50 Cheltenham: Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
Another big handicap with 20 runners over the bigger obstacles. This is another race that has been good to the well fancied runners so I’m staying at the head of the market for our bet.
This is maybe an obvious statement but you want a horse that looks well handicapped so one that is making its handicap debut after showing decent form in novice chases is a good place to start.
The one that appeals most is Irish raider A Plus Tard. Rachael Blackmore, who is having a terrific season, rides from Henry De Bromhead, a trainer that generally does well with his chasers. The selection was good in his native France over hurdles, and excelled on soft ground. He has won his last 2 big field races which is a huge positive for these novices (being able to handle the hustle and bustle should not underestimated). Over fences, he’s been 2nd twice and won his other (18 runner field) where he beat Arkle hope Duc Des Genievres. This is his handicap debut so there’s every reason to believe his mark is a workable one too.
In a field full of runners with untapped potential, I think A Plus Tard is the one with the most in his favour and he looks a solid each way selection.
Back A Plus Tard (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 8.00 Boylesports (⅕ odds 1-5)
Back it here:
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5.30 Cheltenham: NH Novices’ Chase
To finish, we had a 4 mile chase for amateur rides. Stamina is clearly key but this is a race where it pays to stick with the highest rated runners in the field. Ballyward and Ok Corral are the 2 top rated, trained by Mullins and Henderson respectively, and they head the market.
I think there is value in the next highest rated runner, Discorama. He was 2nd in the Martin Pipe here 12 months ago so clearly likes the track. He also goes well in big fields as he has won an 18 runner chase, in addition to that Festival run last year. He’s been 5th in a 2 mile 4 furlong chase this year behind Delta Work and Le Richebourg which is top form. A step up in trip will eke out further improvement. When stepped up to 3 miles last time, he was in the process of running a massive race when falling at the last whilst challenging Ballyward. Finally, he will appreciate the soft ground and, at twice the odds of Ballyward, he’s taken to cause an upset.
Back Discorama (e/w) for a 1.5/10 stake at 8.00 BetVictor (⅕ odds 1-4)