National Hunt 2018/19: An ante-post look at the Cheltenham Festival

Until the introduction of Champions’ Day, the Cesarewitch was the conventional season-ender of the Summer’s flat racing festivities. For me therefore, it is a perfect opportunity to look ahead to the jumps. Predictions this fsr in the future are wrought with danger and so here I pick three horses for each of the Cheltenham Festival’s four championship races: the likely winner (injuries aside), the intriguing challenger and the dark horse.

Champion Hurdle:

Winner: Buveur D’Air

The only reason I can think of for his narrow margin of defeating Melon this year was that he’d not been forced to engage top gear prior to Prestbury Park. Having defended his title, however, and with novice chasing plans shelved until his crown comes under serious threat, Buveur D’Air is still the horse to beat. He is blessed with a turn of foot but I don’t remember seeing a slicker hurdler of timber. He gains lengths at each obstacle and if Nicky Henderson were to find some more demanding targets, if that is possible, of course, the seven-year-old looks set to dominate the market for Tuesday’s spectacle yet again.

Challenger: Samcro

Now.

We do not know yet whether Jesus on hooves is being aimed at a novice chasing campaign or a tilt at the Champion Hurdle. Michael O’Leary and Gordon Elliott are keeping their cards firmly pressed against their chests but I would suggest it is more than likely that Samcro will be given at least another season over hurdles. The Gold Cup is the long term aim but I was very taken by his Neptune win in March given he lost a shoe and didn’t really stay. He has so much raw ability and looked in control in the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown until coming down late in the day. His reputation still proceeds him in spite of some already commendable achievements but he looks a superstar and can serve it up to the favourite, if he isn’t that himself, in this discipline.

Dark Horse: We Have A Dream

Five-year-olds don’t have a great record in the Champion Hurdle (Katchit was the last winner of that age in 2008). However, this Henderson juvenile was outstanding all season. Like Buveur D’Air, he hurdles so sharply and his opening two victories at Doncaster displayed immense promise. He followed that with two victories in unfavourable soft ground before hacking up in a Grade One at Aintree in April. He missed the Triumph Hurdle, which I’m sure he’d have won, and though caution must be taken after Defi Du Seuil’s disappointments of last season, We Have A Dream is a horse to follow in the coming months. A decent preparation could set him up for a big run next Spring.

Champion Chase:

Winner: Altior

It is impossible not to tip Altior for the Champion Chase. He is unbeaten over obstacles, never seriously being threatened in the process and is simply quicker than any other horse currently in training. His jumping is sound at worst, electric at best and though this division is comfortably the strongest, he would still take all the beating. He was unable to run until February last season and was still firmly on top come the festival and so who knows what a peak fitness Altior with a full season’s racing may do.

Challenger: Douvan

Two years ago, Douvan had the equine world at his mercy, seemingly unstoppable. Since then, he has broken down when 1/4 for the Queen Mother in 2017, fallen when leading in the same contest earlier this year and been run ragged by stablemate Un De Sceaux at Punchestown. Rich Ricci and Willie Mullins are still confident that Douvan’s full potential has not been realised and based on the pre-Altior days, he could still be a phenomenal champion. It may even help that he now has something to prove and he will be the stable’s no.1 when the time comes for battle. Altior vs Douvan is still the most mouthwatering clash imaginable and I pray both make it to Cheltenham in top condition.

Dark horse: Great Field

Like Altior, Great Field is unbeaten over fences though he is yet to set foot outside of Ireland. Indeed, he has only ever raced five times over the larger obstacles although he has improved with every start, culminating in an astonishing success over Doctor Phoenix in which he was over twenty lengths clear on the bridle racing into the straight. The winning margin was a length and a half after he was all but eased down before the final fence so his potential remains completely untapped. Injury hindered his previous campaign but there is no doubt that if he avoids harm at home, Great Field will be aimed at the highest level.

Stayers Hurdle:

Winner: Faugheen

I, along with many others, was calling for the Machine’s retirement after he finished down the field in the Champion Hurdle. Yet back he bounced, storming away with the Punchestown Stayers, retaining all the old force and style. It is easy to forget that Faugheen won the Neptune at the Festival as a novice and so the stamina was always there. Now he is ten, it is only being fully realised. The age is both a positive and a negative for he must remain enthusiastic to be competitive at the top but he was so far clear at Punchestown that the title is there for the taking, especially without a superstar in this field.

Challenger: Identity Thief

It appeared that Henry De Bromhead’s charge had lost interest in the sport after failing to shine over fences. Three below par runs preceded an encouraging runner-up spot in a Group Three prior to Cheltenham. Neverthless, nobody expected him to finish fourth in a Champion hurdle, nor follow that up with a flying success in the Liverpool Stayers from Wholestone. The extra distance brought out the old Identity Thief and then some and he can be forgiven his performance behind Faugheen at Punchestown given it came just twelve days after Aintree. He is now a dual Grade One winner and a campaign in the stayers division may continue to bring the best out of him. Long may it continue and I hope he serves it up to Faugheen in March.

Dark Horse: The World’s End

In 2017, The World’s End cruised into contention, looking all over the winner, in the Albert Bartlett novices, eventually won by this year’s Stayers Hurdle winner Penhill. He came down three out before gaining some compensation at Aintree. Thereafter, in his first full season in open company, he proved disappointing for Tom George, failing to place in five attempts and finishing only seventh behind Penhill in the aforementioned Stayers. However, he raced on ground unfavourably softer than good on each occasion last season and if a bit of luck arrived regards the ground, we may see a much improved specimen. There is no doubt the ability is there and prizes could soon follow.

Gold Cup:

Winner: Might Bite

Presenting Percy looks a real danger after his stellar novice performances last term but Might Bite continues to ooze more class than his current counterparts. His second to Native River was arguably his most impressive run last season as the ground was too soft for him to swagger up the hill. He still won the King George despite the cut though and was still able to waltz away with the Aintree Bowl despite it coming just four weeks after Cheltenham. If the rain stays away, he will be the marker by which the best are measured. I suspect few have the ability to surpass him.

Challenger: Sizing John

I’m not deliberately avoiding Presenting Percy but he’s too obvious a challenger and the forgotten horse, without being a “dark horse,” is the 2017 Gold Cup hero. He was not himself when walking home a distance behind Road To Respect in the Christmas Chase last season and with injury ruling him out of the remainder, Sizing John has both a crown to reclaim and fitness to regain. He’d previously proved the toughest nut to crack, having been unbeaten over further than 2m4f before his Christmas aberration and 14/1 may look great value if he returns to peak form.

Dark Horse: Terrefort

Another Henderson inmate but this French import is the reverse of Might Bite in terms of ground insofar as he much prefers the heavens to open. He’d previously appeared an unlikely stayer when second to Shattered Love in the JLT at this year’s Festival but he subsequently won impressively at Aintree when defeating the admirable Ms Parfois. He stayed every yard that day and so the extra furlong plus the daunting hill of the Gold Cup would now seem less of an issue for the grey. Terrefort has disappeared even from below the radar of many with other novices stealing more spotlight but ignoring him is a risky business.

There we have it. I’m hugely excited for the days ahead, when National Hunt replaces the flat on our TV screens. Bring on Cheltenham and may all my predictions prove worthless as long as the races are as thrilling as ever.

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