We are here! Day one of the Cheltenham Festival 2016 is upon us and the declarations for the opening seven races are now available.
One notable absentee is Yorkhill in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle as connections opt to take on Neptune Novices’ Hurdle favourite Yanworth over the intermediate trip.
The opening day of the meeting features four Grade One contests and is headlined by the first championship race in the Champion Hurdle where Annie Power seeks to justify favouritism for trainer Willie Mullins.
It looks sure to be an exhilarating four days of the best National Hunt action, and a week in which fans of horse racing should savour.
13:30 – Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1):
The Supreme has proved to be a superb race for Willie Mullins, Rich Ricci and Ruby Walsh in recent years. Champagne Fever, Vautour and Douvan have all produced memorable efforts to win the Festival’s curtain-raiser, and their representative Min looks another potentially exciting horse.
Priced at 25/1 last summer, Min was soon supported into favouritism for the Supreme following reports last season that his work at home was exceptional. His two starts this season have seen the five-year-old record a pair of easy successes, showcasing an efficient jumping technique and good turn of foot.
He is priced at 7/4 in the betting, which is shorter than both Vautour and Douvan for this respective race. There’s an argument to be made that Min has been more impressive to this point than his two stablemates, but he has proved to have a tendency to race freely, especially at Punchestown last time, which may be his downfall.
It could be that Min is the best horse in the race, but at 7/4 I feel he has more questions than answers.
Altior looks to head the English challenge for Nicky Henderson but his effort at Cheltenham in November looked mediocre and he’s short enough at 7/2.
Supasundae ran incredibly well to finish sixth in last year’s Champion Bumper and ran very well over hurdles at Leopardstown at Christmas. He holds each-way claims for connections who hold him in the highest regard.
Another with a place chance is Tombstone for trainer Gordon Elliot and owners Gigginstown. The six-year-old finished second in a good Supreme trial (Deloitte Hurdle) at Leopardstown last time and should relish this step back in trip and better spring ground.
However, it is BUVEUR D’AIR that catches the eye at 13/2 for Nicky Henderson. This five-year-old son of Crillon has looked exciting in his two hurdling outings this term. A debut victory at Newbury, in beating the well-regarded Wait For Me, was followed by a routine victory at Huntingdon in January.
A fast two miles is ideal for this horse. His cruising speed and sharp change of speed should see Buveur D’air produced late by jockey Noel Fehily, who believes he boasts fantastic claims. At 13/2, Nicky Henderson’s inmate represents a solid each-way bet.
Advice: Buveur D’air 13/2 E/W (Paddy Power)
14:10 – Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase (Grade 1):
I’ll keep this very short and sweet. Douvan should be winning this year’s renewal of the Arkle before progressing into a leading Champion Chase contender next season. However, at 2/5 he is no betting proposition.
Instead, SIZING JOHN represents the betting angle at 9/4 in the ‘without favourite’ market. He made a striking debut over fences at Punchestown in October on ground described at ‘Good’.
His performance at Cheltenham in the Supreme last season proved his ability around Prestbury Park is at a quality standard, and he should have the beating of second-favourite Vaniteux, who has yet to win in five starts at the track.
Advice: Sizing John 9/4 (without favourite) – (Bet365)
14:50 – Ultima Handicap Chase (Grade 3):
You can make a case for at least a dozen of the runners in this three-mile one-furlong handicap chase.
However, one that stands out off of a mark of 150, is the Pat Fahy-trained MORNING ASSEMBLY. Third in the 2014 running of the RSA Chase, this nine-year-old returned to the track following a 19-month break to finish second at Fairyhouse on heavy ground in January.
His second start of the campaign saw him finish second to the well-regaded Smashing in February, a horse that is now being touted for Ryanair success on Thursday.
Morning Assembly won a Grade One Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in 2014 and should relish this return to three miles at Cheltenham on Tuesday. He has form in beating Gold Cup favourite Don Cossack over fences in his novice campaign, and could be very well treated off of 150 with Davy Russell in the plate.
Advice: Morning Assembly 14/1 E/W (Bet365)
15:10 – Stan James Champion Hurdle (Grade 1):
Much has been said about the chances of Annie Power in the build-up to this year’s Champion Hurdle. The great mare has won 13 of her 15 races to date in her career.
She looked sure to win the Mares’ Hurdle in a canter last season before taking a crushing fall at the final flight under jockey Ruby Walsh.
Following the withdrawal of both Faugheen and Arctic Fire, Annie Power has now been rerouted to the Champion Hurdle and is as short as 7/4 to win Tuesday’s highlight. However, it will be her first race over two miles in two years, and trainer Willie Mullins had reportedly been preparing her for a potential tilt at the World Hurdle later in the week.
Instead, it is NICHOLS CANYON that is the each-way selection. This Graham Wylie-owned six-year-old produced a memorable display to beat Faugheen at Punchestown earlier this season. He bossed the race from the front that day and will improve his chances of Champion success if doing similar here.
His win in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas was one of a gruelling nature and clearly played a part in his disappointing display against Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle in February.
However, if he can return to the form of his Grade One victories at Aintree and Punchestown last year then he heads to Cheltenham with fantastic claims of securing his first Champion Hurdle success.
Advice: Nichols Canyon 6/1 E/W (Boylesports)
16:10 – OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (Grade 1):
Another Mares’ Hurdle that is headed by a Willie Mullins hot-pot in VROUM VROUM MAG.
This talented seven-year-old mare has defeated everything in her path since moving to Willie Mullins’ yard in November 2014. Her latest victory at Ascot in January was arguably her best to date and she heads to Cheltenham with a favourites’ chance in prolonging her trainers stranglehold over the race.
She is no betting opportunity at 11/10 though and is best watched on this occasion.
Advice: No Bet
16:50 – National Hunt Chase (Listed):
The four-miler is always a tricky contest which is won by a horse that has an abundance of stamina. This year’s race is led in the betting by the JP McManus-owned Minella Rocco who brings with him a big reputation, as well as a hefty price-tag.
His effort at Ascot last time out suggested that this step up in trip to four miles will suit though he is priced accordingly at 7/2.
A bit of a flyer in the market could be the Paul Nicholls-trained VICENTE at 16/1.
The seven-year old won a good three mile novice chase at Cheltenham in November, staying on well up the hill to win somewhat comfortably.
His running style and booking of good amatuer Will Biddick can assist him in running a bold race at 16/1 or greater.
Advice: Vicente 16/1 E/W (SkyBet)
17:30 – Close Brother Novices’ Handicap Chase (Listed):
Another fiercely competitive handicap where the field is separated by just 4lbs in weight. The Warren Greatrex-trained Aloomomo has been talked about for this race for a long time and could be well-handicapped off of 140.
ON TOUR has been racing over the wrong trip all season and, as a result, is able to race here on a mark of 138. His victory at Exeter earlier this season in beating Otago Trail by half-a-length (who is now rated 154) makes him a potentially well-weighted horse, granted he puts his best foot forward.
At 25/1, he is worth chancing as a small each-way play over his favoured trip of two-and-a-half miles.
Advice: On Tour 25/1 E/W (BetVictor)