After the scares of equine flu, gale-force winds and an unprecedentedly dry winter for racing, Cheltenham week finally arrives with precious few key absentees and no known threats to it’s going ahead. It is fitting that the opening day is just that: open, with both the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Arkle Challenge Trophy at 4/1 the field with seemingly few no-hopers and the Champion Hurdle causing a cracking debate as to which of the big three will come out on top – or whether a left-field outfit will scoot in instead.
Below are my tips for every race of the first day, something I will continue for all four das of the festival:
The battle for favouritism between Al Dancer, Angels Breath and Klassical Dream has been a tight one in recent days, but given only two favourites have prevailed in the last ten years, it could pay to side away from them, not least because all have a bit to prove. Al Dancer’s win in handicap company last time looked strong, but he had a dream run around the inside and the form is dealt a blow by those that finished second and third. Angels Breath has to overcome a defeat to Southfield Stone latest, albeit he was conceding weight, while Klassical Dream might just prefer further. Front-runners have also had a tricky time in this race of late and though Elixir De Nutz is undoubtedly tough, he might find a couple too good. It has paid to side with a horse who comes from off the pace, as per Labaik and Summerville Boy in the last two years, and so the vote goes to ARAMON. Though he may have a bit to prove ground wise (most of his runs have been on the unseasonably quick ground this winter) he tore away with a Grade One over Christmas when there was a bit of cut in the ground. He lost out narrowly to Klassical Dream at the Dublin Festival at the beginning of February, but with more patient tactics he should go close on his best efforts, particularly at the prices. The four-year-old Fakir D’oudairies will have to be very good for a juvenile if he is to win this even though he receives a nifty weight allowance while Grand Sancy is another who can go close based on his open Grade Two victory last month. Brandon Castle is worth a mention of the outsiders, being unbeaten in three starts so far.
2. Grand Sancy
3. Angels Breath
The last four winners of this race have been odds-on favourites so it is very unusual to see such a competitive renewal. Unfortunately as the rain eases the ground, so would it seem to ease Lalor’s chances of an emotional victory. Regardless of who you’ve backed, it would be a joy to see Kayley Woollacott’s charge return victorious, but it seems increasingly unlikely. In pulverising Kalashnikov with a slick display of speed jumping at Sandown, GLEN FORSA recorded the most eyecatching piece of form in a wide-open contest. He’s gradually improved run by run, winning all three over fences while stepping back in trip each time, and if he can remain near the pace, his greatests asset of jumping and stamina may be seen to full effect. Hardline has been the subject of immense support this week. He easily beat dual Grade One runner-up Us And Them at the start of this season before finishing third to La Bague Au Roi upped to 2 ½ miles last time out. That trip might just suit him a little better than tomorrow’s while Duc Des Genievres is only one from eight over obstacles although that was a facile victory on his latest start. Ornua finished ahead of Lalor last time out and Us And Them has only been beaten by Le Richebourg the last twice so neither of those can be discounted, nor can Knocknanuss, who looks a likely pace angle but will have to prove his wellbeing after a heavy fall most recently.
1. Glen Forsa
After a promising comeback run, Give Me A Copper became many people’s “good thing” for the opening day. The vibes from the Paul Nicholls camp are that he’s far better than his current mark, however, he’d be four times the price on form which greatly lessens his appeal. In spite of their poor record in the race, the Irish contingent may land a surprise blow with UP FOR REVIEW. He’s catching the eye of punters looking for value in this race and is one of the few raiders from across the Irish Sea to avoid a rise in his handicap mark. He was a decent third behind a well-treated stablemate in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran in January and has received no punishment for that performance where others may well have done. Mister Whitaker won the Close Brothers on this day last year and retains potential to do even better but has his stamina to prove. Coo Star Sivola won this off only 3lb lower last year but is out of form while Minella Rocco is still only a nine-year-old though his best days have surely passed. Singlefarmpayment usually runs well here while others at decent prices are Beware The Bear, hit by only a 5lb rise for an impressive victory here on New Year’s Day, Vintage Clouds, admirably consistent and interesting after a wind op and Royal Vacation if the rain makes it more of a slog.
1. Up For Review
2. Give Me A Copper
3. Vintage Clouds
Having backed Buveur D’Air in both his Champion Hurdle victories to date it pains me to move away. But APPLE’S JADE has raised her game to an entirely different level this season and romped away with the Irish Champion Hurdle back over two miles last month. Any doubts about her lacking the necessary pace for this were put firmly in the back of the mind and the 7lb she receives from the reigning champion can make the difference. Laurina adds an extra dimension to the contest as she’s walked to both her victories this season. They have both been against opposition significantly weaker than today, however, and her occasionally novicey hurdling will be tested based on the speed they’ll go from the front. This is no three-horse race though, with Sharjah bringing Grade One winning form from Christmas to the table, Melon having peaked at the Festival the last twice and Espoir D’Allen representing a wildcard option after a hat-trick of wins. The horse to take them along might be Global Citizen, an each-way play after his defeat of Silver Streak at Haydock while stablemates Brain Power and Verdana Blue make up a stellar line-up, though it would be a surprise if either were involved at the head of affairs.
1. Apple’s Jade
2. Buveur D’Air
The each-way play in this contest looks to be ROKSANA. Second to Santini in a Grade One Aintree novice event last season, her comeback run behind Buveur D’Air was over an inadequately short trip. With every drop of rain that falls, this race could be more of a stamina test which will suit Dan and Harry Skelton’s mare: she doesn’t lack for ability either. Benie Des Dieux is understandably favourite given Willie Mullins’ extraordinary record in this race and having won this last year, but she beat an Apple’s Jade who was in season (and so well below her best) that day. Her half-length victory over Midnight Tour, therefore, looks far less appealing at odds-on even though stable confidence is high. Limini isn’t the same horse that was favourite for this two years ago even though she recaptured a little bit of form last time out while Stormy Ireland is unlikely to stay if she sets the pace as is her custom. Lady Buttons is unbeaten this season but she’ll need to up her game again while Mia’s Storm is back on an incline after back-to-back victories. If Momella recaptures her best form, a place isn’t out of the question.
2. Benie Des Dieux
3. Mia’s Storm
The five-year-old A Plus Tard may well have his form boosted earlier in the day if Duc Des Genievres goes close in the Arkle. However, he’s 4lb higher than he would be in Ireland and was in receipt of a stone when soundly beaten by Winter Escape last time – that form wouldn’t be good enough here. Riders Onthestorm has performed well in some high-quality races but preference is for HIGHWAY ONE O ONE who gave weight to the rapidly improving Kildisart when not beaten far into second on the New Course in January. Back on the Old Course, which places more of an emphasis on speed, he should be thereabouts and has performed admirably enough already in some big novice races. Movewiththetimes is a second season novice who is still without a win and has now failed to complete on his last three starts for all he is probably a talent. Walt waltzed away with a big Kempton handicap two weeks ago and wouldn’t be without a chance of defying a 7lb rise while Red Indian ran a massive race when fourth in the Grade One Kauto Star in December. Cubomania was entered in virtually every race at the festival so it may be telling that he runs here and The Russian Doyen may be worth noting if he can find some form at Cheltenham as he has won both starts either side of a heavy defeat here.
1. Highway One O One
2. Riders Onthestorm
3. A Plus Tard
OK CORRAL (nap) has been on my shortlist ever since a very routine triumph in a Listed Warwick contest at the turn of the year. He also beat Classic Chase hero Impulsive Star on his opening run over fences in December while his second to Kilbricken Storm in last season’s Albert Bartlett, when finishing strongly up the hill, bodes well for his chances at the four-mile trip. Top amateur Derek O’Connor gets the nod for Nicky Henderson’s horse who, crucially, was considered an able deputy to Santini for the RSA. Ballyward and Discorama are the obvious dangers. The former won a Grade Three at Naas, benefitting from the latter’s fall at the last, in conditions likely to be repeated on Tuesday. A slog might be what he’s all about and he represents last season’s winning trainer. Le Breuil and Jerrysback have been re-routed from handicap options to challenge here with Jamie Codd’s presence on the first named an obvious plus. Atlanta Ablaze hasn’t stopped improving all season while Mulcahys Hill has always looked like a horse made for marathon trips and so would be considered if bringing his A game.
1. OK Corral
3. Mulcahys Hill