PREVIEW: Cheltenham Festival Day One

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13:30 – Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle (Grade 1)

Douvan is the short priced favourite for the Supreme Novices, and probably rightly so. The Mullins and Walsh combination will be looking to get the festival off to another winning start, as they did last year with Vautour. Douvan has had the same preparation race as Vautour, the Moscow Flyer Handicap at Punchestown, and won it in far better style, hardly coming off the bridle. Douvan is three for three this season and looks to be one of the bankers of the festival. The only negative is that 9 of the last 11 favourites, shorter than 3/1, have been beaten and Henderson’s L’Ami Serge will be trying to further consolidate this statistic. Looking further down the field, the value pick could be with Jollyallan; who has won 3 of 4 this season. The rare combination of AP McCoy for Harry Fry could push the Mullins’ horse all the way. This could result in another runner-up for AP, who has finished second in this race 5 times.

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14:05 – Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase (Grade 1)

With another short priced favourite, a win for Un De Sceaux could be a great start to the festival for favourite backers. Un De Sceaux would have had three very easy chase wins, if it weren’t for falling on his first start when he was 25 lengths clear. He was taking on weak opposition that day; but has since shown his chasing class when taking on Gilgamboa and Clarcam, winning here easily with an impressive round of jumping. On this evidence, it looks like he will be very hard to beat. For the placings it is a very difficult race to unravel; Vibrato Valtat, Josses Hill, Vautour and Clarcam, all proved high-class hurdlers last season. The Nicholls trained Vibrato Valtat has recently looked very promising and with proven course experience could be a big threat to the Mullins’ horse. Josses Hill was a top class hurdler last season, finishing second in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, but hasn’t lived up to expectations over fences, being a beaten odds on favourite twice. With such a competitive field for the placings, it may be worth siding with God’s Own; who looked a really exciting prospect when winning in fine style, against some quality opposition, at Exeter in November. He has two lesser runs since but could be worth chancing a bounce back at 40/1.

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14:40 – Festival Handicap Chase (Grade 3)

The first big handicap race is always a difficult race to forecast. However, this does mean there is always each-way value in the market and there could be some decent place money to pick up. Ned Stark is a promising young chaser for Alan King, who has won 3/4 over fences with his only defeat coming in a Class 1 at Cheltenham. He is quite highly regarded in the King stable and there could be a lot more to come from him after his course debut. Another horse worthy of note is Mendip Express. This lightly raced nine year old has been running well in both chase and hurdle races this year and has some very solid form over the bigger obstacles. His trainer, Harry Fry, has learnt from the best when getting a horse primed for the festival and could notch up another winner. Finally, The Package is worth a mention. The Pipe trained horse has an outstanding record in big field handicaps at Cheltenham, with figures of PU-3-3-1-2-4-PU-3-6, and can surely pick up some place money again.

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15:20 – Stan James Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)

The feature race of the day is an exciting prospect with numerous high class hurdlers littered through the field. This could be the third leg of great day for the Walsh and Mullins combination, with the unbeaten Faugheen looking like an unstoppable machine. Faugheen easily won the Christmas Hurdle, which is one of the best indicators for this race. He also has the invaluable Cheltenham course form when he won the Neptune Management Investment Management Novices Hurdle by 4 ½ lengths. The New One, last year’s unfortunate third after being badly hampered half way round, has won all of his starts this year. However, he as not run up to his odds or expectations in any of these races and even though he won the International Hurdle, he doesn’t look like he will be able to conquer the unbeaten Faugheen. Last year’s winner, Jezki, had everything fall into place under a fine Geraghty ride but this may not happen this time around. Hurricane Fly is a legend of the hurdling world, with 22 Grade 1 wins. However, if this race was on Irish soil he would have a much better chance. The two times Champion was a well beaten fourth last year and it is a big ask for him to turn that form around. Even though he has beaten Jezki twice this year, he doesn’t appear to have enough to come back and win his third Champion Hurdle. The value pick of the race would have to be Kitten Rock. Kitten Rock has slipped under the radar a little in this race. He has had four very convincing runs over in Ireland this year, albeit at very short odds. However, he is unproven outside of Ireland, and more importantly at Cheltenham, but he could be worth chancing at the odds.

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16:00 – OLBG Mares Hurdle (Grade 1)

For the first time in six years a new champion mare will be crowned. Now that the super-mare Quevega has been retired it has paved the way for a new star, which will likely again arise from the Mullins stable. Mullins holds another strong hand in the race with Annie Power or Glen’s Melody. Annie Power is another short priced favourite and she is by far the highest rated horse in the field. Her only loss came in the World Hurdle at last year’s festival, when she was taking on her male counterparts; coming second by 1 ½ lengths. The only negative is that she hasn’t had a run this season and it has to be trusted that Mullins will have her ready to fire. Glen’s Melody pushed Quevega all the way last year. However, whether Quevega was at her brilliant best is questionable, as she was retired at the end of the season. The value in the field seems to lie with Bitofapuzzle. This progressive mare has only had three runs over hurdles but she won two of them. She also has course from when winning a national hunt flat race here in November.

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16:40 – National Hunt Chase (Listed)

The outlook of this race much depends on whether Don Poli goes for the RSA chase or this one. If he goes for the RSA as conjectured then the race becomes a lot more open. If rumour is true then the best chance Gigginstown has in the race is Wounded Warrior, who has been running well in graded novice chases over in Ireland this season. A big drawback is that he is prone to mistakes and for four miles around Cheltenham that is far from ideal. Another horse that’s a leader of the market is Sego Success. The trainer of this progressive young chaser, Alan King, has a fantastic record in this race and could get another winner. However, Sego Success has never run at Cheltenham or contested a field larger than ten runners, and this could be a big ask this time around. At larger odds, Mosspark could be one to follow. This young chaser has been running well this season. His penultimate run at Cheltenham wasn’t without promise and is worth chancing at the odds.

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17:10 – Rewards 4 Racing Novices Handicap Chase (Listed)

The second big handicap of the festival brings out another intriguing race. With the field nearly at double odds it can be a difficult race to dissect which usually goes to a progressive novice. The two progressive chasers that are the most eye-catching in this field are Irish Cavalier and Stellar Notion. Irish Cavalier has run creditably all season without getting his head in front. His latest third at Cheltenham is decent form, and he gets better on firmer ground based on his hurdling exploits. If the better ground does come as forecast then we could be seeing him romp home up the Cheltenham hill. Stellar Notion ran in the same as Irish Cavalier at Cheltenham, only finishing seventh when being sent off favourite. This being said it looks like he was running on unfavourable soft ground, and he is another potential improver on better ground based on his hurdling. Separating these two is difficult; and even though he had a below par run last time, it may be worth siding with Stellar Notion to bounce back.

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