The big race of the opening day at Prestbury Park is the 2 mile Champion Hurdle where 17 are expected to line up for what feels like a substandard renewal.
Nicky Henderson has 4 in the race, including the favourite and only mare in the field, Epatante. She’s a winner of 4 of her 5 starts over hurdles, most recently the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She looked a speedster there and that casts doubt over her ability at this stiff track. Interestingly, her only hurdles debut came here 12 months ago in a novice hurdle when again sent off favourite.
Henderson also saddles last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills who hasn’t been at his best this year but should be helped by the bigger field and faster pace. His other 2, Fusil Raffles and Call Me Lord, aren’t dismissed either with preference for the latter who won the International Hurdle here in December.
Of the others from the UK, Silver Streak was 3rd in this last year and was 2nd to Epatante at Kempton so could again run a good race. Ballyandy likes Cheltenham and beat Pentland Hills last time but looks just short.
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As always, the Irish challenge is strong and that’s where our 2 bets come from. The first is the recently supplemented Cilaos Emery. He’s the one that looks to have a touch of class having been a top novice hurdler back in 2017. Having missed the whole of 2018, he’s been campaigned over fences winning all 3 of his completed starts; his only blot came when falling behind leading Queen Mother Champion Chase hope, Chacun Pour Soi. Reverting to hurdles, he won the Red Mills from Darasso, travelling smoothly and only had to be pushed out to win. He’s almost certain to improve and with the ground holding no fear, he’s almost certain to be in the mix at the business end.
Our 2nd selection is Darver Star from the Gavin Cromwell yard who saddled Espoir D’Allen to win this race last year. He won his first 4 this season at a variety of trips up to 2 miles 5 furlongs. He has been turned over in his last 2 starts but both of those performances were still pretty special. In the first of those defeats, he was 3rd to the outstanding Envoi Allen before finishing 2nd to the equally special Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle. That day, he had Petit Mouchoir, Supasundae and Sharjah in behind. He’s a normally sound jumper, is sure to relish the stamina test that Cheltenham offers and will be staying on when others have cried enough.
The other Irish challengers include Supasundae who’s a solid yardstick but is now a 10 year old, Couer Sublime who was 2nd in last year’s Triumph but most recently finished behind Sharjah who himself finished behind Darver Star in the Irish equivalent of this.
PLACED – Back Cilaos Emery (e/w) for a 1/10 stake at 8.50 Coral BOG (⅕ odds 1-4)
PLACED – Back Darver Star (e/w) for a 0.75/10 stake at 13.00 Betway BOG (⅕ odds 1-4)