Cheltenham 2017: Day 1 Preview
Our horse racing expert and former author of the Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide, Paul Jones offers his thoughts and the latest news on all the Grade 1 races on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
**Updated: Tuesday 14th March**
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
A weakened renewal with the likes of Moon Racer, Neon Wolf and Movewiththetimes all coming out.
Willie Mullins runs his obvious pair of Melon and Bunk Off Early in search of a fourth Supreme win in five years and is backed up by Crack Mome and Cialos Emery, who were second-favourites for this race earlier in the season but then beaten on their last start. 18 of the last 20 winners won last time out, in fact over two-thirds of Supreme winners going back to and including Indefence in 1996 had won their last two starts. The same yard’s Bunk Off Early was also beaten last time out when second in a possibly mediocre Deloitte (time will tell) having tanked through that 2m2f race. Melon is therefore the Mullins number one and it spoke volumes for the esteem in which he is held that the trainer commented at his media day that Walsh wouldn’t have any trouble picking him.
Ballyandy won the Champion Bumper last season and 4 of the last 14 winners finished in the first five in that race making it the best guide in recent seasons. The key to him is a strongly-run 2m as it’s no coincidence that his best two performances have been in those circumstances.
High Bridge just missed on a top-five position in last season’s Champion Bumper by one place has since moved from John Ferguson who has given up training to the up-and-coming Ben Pauling and is 3-3 including an impressive win under a double penalty on testing ground a Newbury in a non-pattern novice hurdle, but one that has featured three Supreme winners in the last 20 years. The downside is that his amateur rider, Alex Ferguson, won’t be able to claim his 7lb allowance.
Beyond Conceit has joined River Wylde in the race for Nicky (rather than waiting for the Neptune) whose Altior ended a 24-year barren run in the race for Seven Barrows despite saddling a shedload of horses who went right to the top who finished placed.
Eight contenders take on the long odds-on Altior who will start at an unbackable price to many as he bids to become the fifth odds-on winner in the last six years. Official ratings already have him higher than Sprinter Sacre and Douvan even after that pair had won the Arkle.
Charbel is the second-favourite having got Altior at it for a few strides in the Henry VIII Chase before the winner’s class shone through but he hasn’t run since early December, not helped by coughing. He is likely to test Altior’s early jumping by setting a strong pace. In fact there is quite a lot of pace in the race as, in addition to Charbel, Henry de Bromhead generally likes his horses to be ridden forward and he has three runners and Cloudy Dream has also been ridden prominently over fences.
Forest Bihan could make some appeal therefore as he has a real turn of foot so he will certainly be held up and looks the type to run through beaten horses and he seems to hold Cloudy Dream and A Hare Breath on Doncaster form.
There isn’t much between Royal Caviar and Some Plan on Irish Arkle running. Ruby Walsh’s mount looked narrowly set to beat his sole standing rival after Identity Thief and Bleu Et Rouge fell, until coming a cropper himself at the final fence. Some Plan looked like he would finish second to Le Prezien here in November until he fell two out and Paul Nicholls doesn’t deem that horse worthy of a place in the line up but Davy Russell thinks he would have made Royal Caviar work hard had he not fallen at the final fence in the Irish Arkle.
Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase
This has been a very good race down the years for a horse in the front four in the betting and features the last three winners; The Druid’s Nephew, who is back off the same handicap mark off which he won this contest in 2015, last year’s winner Un Temps Pour Tout who races off top weight this time and the 2014 winner, Holywell, who was also second last year and now races off a 5lb lower mark.
In addition to The Druid’s Nephew, Neil Mulholland also runs last season’s third The Young Master and the big handicap winner at Kempton three weeks ago, Pilgrims Bay. Colin Tizzard is doubly represented with Theatre Guide who fell in last year’s race and Viconte Du Noyer, both of which have won handicap chases at Cheltenham this season as is Alan King with the novice, Label Des Obeaux, and the Cheltenham regular, Annacotty. Gigginstown House Stud are also double handed with Measureofmydreams and Clarcam as is Jonjo O’Neill who runs Go Conquer in addition to Holywell.
No winner since 1983 has been rated 150+ so last year’s winner Un Temps Pour Tout (155) and current second-favourite Noble Endeavor (154) have that big trend to overcome.
Novices has won five of the last 13 runnings which is part reason why Singlefarmpayment is favourite but he also meets other trends criterion. Other novices are Label Des Obeaux who looks a marathon-trip horse of the future, Ibis Du Rheuwho won the Martin Pipe at the Festival last season but this hasn’t been Paul Nicholls’ race at all being 0-19 and the pair at the bottom, Vintage Clouds and Vic De Touzaine. Junction Fourteen is also a novice but has not been since October when he finished second to Antony in a valuable handicap at Ascot.
Measureofmydreams is not to be discounted on his NH Chase third last season given the big race winners to have come out of the race since but the Grand National or Irish National may be what connections are working towards on his second start back.
A dozen runners were declared on Sunday for this below-par running of the Champion Hurdle in which Faugheen, Annie Power, Altior and Yorkhill would have started clear favourite if they made it. In their absence it is likely to be Yanworth that will be sent off the market leader.
Rightly so as he’s unbeaten in three starts this season and the only horse to have beaten him over timber is Yorkhill, who would be favourite if he was running. Yanworth didn’t impress everyone when winning the Kingwell Hurdle but the stiffer course here will suit and he was not fully wound up that day (also coming off a setback), just like was the case at Ascot on his seasonal debut but we then saw how much he improved for that run when winning the Christmas Hurdle.
Buveur D’Air represents last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle form (not been as good a guide as the Neptune though Sublimity and Jezki were beaten in it and won here) having finished third and he bids to become the first winner since Morley Street in 1991 that was novice chasing earlier in the season. The ground shouldn’t inconvenience him but there can be a little question that his chance would have been enhanced if it was to ride genuinely soft.
Brain Power’s connections will be pleased to see the drying ground but he has not run since a week before Christmas and it’s been a long time since the Champion Hurdle winner last did that. We have to go back a further month until the novice Moon Racer last ran when he had Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes behind him in a tactically-run Grade 2 at The Open Meeting. That makes him a statistical no-no but it is not hard to see why they are having a crack in a poor renewal being an 8yo who is hard to keep sound.
Of the Irish there are grounds for believing that Footpad can reverse Irish Champion Hurdle placings with Petit Mouchoirover this more demanding track and with Walsh potentially riding him to pick up the pieces. Petit Mouchoir might be a sitting duck if he is going to cut out the running as this course is tougher to make all on than in small fields at Leopardstown.
The New One (9yo) and My Tent Or Yours (10yo) finished 1-2 in the International Hurdle when the winner was giving 8lb to the dual Champion Hurdle runner-up but both were beaten by Yanworth at Kempton and the feeling is that both had enough chances to win a Champion Hurdle by now.
Four proper Grade 1 quality mares have been declared (it is usually only Willie Mullins’ main hope that has been a genuine Grade 1 mare so far in this race), so it’s unquestionably the best ever running.
The impression given all season was that Vroum Vroum Mag is a better mare than Limini, even after last season’s Dawn Run winner beat Apple’s Jade last month, but her non-declaration for the Champion Hurdle and then Walsh selecting Limini over last year’s easy winner of this race suggests that she is not fully over what was ailing her when she was all out to beat inferior rivals at Doncaster in January after winning the Grade 1 three-miler against the boys at Leopardstown.
Limini easily dismissed Apple’s Jade (a mare that needs to run herself into form) at Punchestown on her seasonal debut when both likely needed the run so she’s the form choice as Apples’ Jade beat Vroum Vroum Mag in the Hatton’s Grace, though it very much looked like the r/u lost out due to lack of fitness on her seasonal debut against a race-hardened mare.
Many expect Jer’s Girl to leave this season’s efforts behind with the McManus team having been waiting for the Grade 1 mares’ races in the spring with her. She won two of those last season at Fairyhouse and Punchestown.
Rons Dream is officially the highest rated of the British challenge and won easily at Warwick last time. She was only ninth last season in a renewal which saw Rock On The Moor finish second at 66/1. Jessica Harrington sends her back to try and go one place better but she is a big price again.
Lifeboat Mona is likely to start the shortest price of the home team after showing a good turn of foot to win at Ascot and the battling qualities to come out on top at Sandown. However, Briery Queen came out as the best mare at the weights that day beaten 3¼l giving 4lb. Colin’s Sister runs here rather than mares’ novices’ hurdle, mainly because this trip is expected to suit her better than the 2m1f of the Dawn Run.
J T McNamara National Hunt Chase
Last season’s Albert Bartlett third Champers On Ice has shaped like a dour stayer this season and he has also been declared in first-time cheekpieces to try and stop him racing lazily. His owner is likely to have worked backwards from the Festival having enjoyed winners at the meeting for the last two years (Moon Racer and Un Temps Pour Tout) and he prepped for the meeting in the same novices’ handicap chase on Trials Day over an inadequate trip in which they ran Un Temps Pour Tout.
The Irish-trained pair of A Genie In Abottle and Edwulf head the market though. Edwulf has fallen or unseated his rider four times in 12 career starts so there are jumping question marks over him. Tiger Roll and Martello Tower are other strong Irish raiders. Tiger Roll is at his best in big fields and he is “working like a bomb” according to Gordon Elliott on Sunday and Martello Tower has won at the Festival before and beat A Genie In Abottle three starts back. Arbre De Viemight be the pick over Haymount of the Willie Mullins pair.
Nicky Henderson had to convince the owners of Beware The Bear to run as they were worried whether he is ready for a race like this (seen as a future Grand National prospect) and he’s well fancied and we also have the 1-2-4 from the Reynoldstown takin each other on again; Bigbadjohn, Flintham and Arpege D’Alene.
Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase
Although rated 142, Zamdy Man is allowed to run in this 0-140 handicap and will be bidding to become the fourth top weight in six years to win. Venetia Williams also supplies as the bottom weight (only 5lb off the top weight) as Burtons Well has kept out the ante-post second-favourite Romain De Senam who has been balloted out by one position
Value At Risk was the significant absentee at the declaration stage, being the third-favourite, having knocked a leg but Dan Skelton is still represented by Its’afreebee and Two Taffs.
Henry de Bromhead has three contenders in Killiney Court, Deans Road and All Hell Let Loose and the other three Irish runners are Tully East, Powersbomb and Last Goodbye. Tully East ran well at last season’s Festival when fourth in a handicap hurdle.
Sizing Tennesse, Two Taffs and Its’afreebee are potentially interesting in first-time headgear but no surprise to see Foxtail Hill favourite having beaten experienced handicappers so well here on Trials Day so this is actually a drop in class. The form has worked out well though with second, third and fourth all enhancing the form since.
**One week to go preview**
13:30 The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle…
“A decision on whether Moon Racer will head to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or Champion Hurdle won’t be taken until at least after the five-day entries have been made according to David Pipe and the markets have not really been a great guide either as he has been fairly strong in both races in the last week.
On the other hand, it looks like Nigel Twiston-Davies has made his mind up regarding the other former Champion Bumper winner that could line up for the traditional Cheltenham Festival curtain raiser as he commented at his media day last week that they have “just about totally decided to go for the Supreme” rather than the Neptune or Coral Cup with Ballyandy.
It also very much looks like the ¾l runner-up to him at Newbury, Movewiththetimes, will take his chance rather than in a handicap as J P McManus doesn’t appear to have another leading candidate unless he switches one of his 4yos as Consul De Thaix looks highly unlikely to have recovered in time from his setback that ruled him out of the Betfair Hurdle. The case for Movewiththetimes is that he arguably has the greater scope for progression of the pair having had five career starts compared to Ballyandy’s ten and would meet him on 1lb better terms than in the Betfair Hurdle.
All is well with Melon apparently so who knows why he was weak in the markets last week but that has rectified itself after Willie Mullins commented that Ruby Walsh was far more likely to ride him than Bunk Off Early. David Casey, one of Mullins’ lieutenants, commented at a preview evening last week that Melon had done plenty of schooling at Thurles.
Having won the Dovecote in such good style, it looks like it will be River Wylde heading to the Supreme to join Beyond Conceit for Nicky Henderson with Lough Derg Spirit (same owners as River Wylde) waiting for Aintree.
The Malcom Jefferson-trained Mount Mews holds entries in the Supreme and Neptune but after winning the Grade 2 at Kelso on Saturday, not unsurprisingly given that he is owned by Trevor Hemmings who is local to Liverpool and the Supreme is taking place just 11 days later, he will instead head to the Grade 1 novice hurdle over 2m at Aintree, a race that the Jefferson stable took with Cyrus Darius two years ago.”
14:10 Arkle Trophy
“Not unsurprisingly given that he has never raced over further than 2 miles in his career, Kim Bailey confirmed Charbel on target for the Arkle and not the JLT over the weekend, arguing that the Cheltenham Festival wasn’t the place to be finding out if he was equally effective or better over a longer trip. He is now the clear second-favourite behind the heavy odds-on Altior, who is only a possible to run in the Champion Chase if anything untoward happens to Douvan.
Charbel led Altior to the final fence in the Henry VIII Chase before last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner kicked clear on the run-in but the runner-up’s performance was arguably the second best piece of 2 miles novice chase form this season and he had previously beaten Top Notch and Le Prezien at Uttoxeter, who have won five times between them since.
Nigel Twiston-Davies remains undecided to run his Kingmaker Chase winner Flying Angel in the Arkle or JLT and is likely to make a late decision.
Definitely missing the Arkle will be Waiting Patiently who has reportedly had a small setback so will be trained for Aintree instead.
Royal Caviar was confirmed as being on course as Min’s substitute for the same connections last week and he looks like being sent off as Ireland’s shortest-priced hope following Identity Thief’s disappointing run when fourth behind Great Field and Don’t Touch It (no Festival entries for either) at Leopardstown on Sunday which finally rules him out of Cheltenham. Royal Caviar looked to be holding Some Plan when he came down at the final fence in the Irish Arkle but there doesn’t appear to be much between the pair at all.”
15:30 Champion Hurdle
“It’s all but looking a done deal that Limini will be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle after her defeat of Apple’s Jade on her seasonal debut at Punchestown and she is sure to be popular given her high-profile connections. Interesting though that the trainer of the runner-up, Gordon Elliott, commented at a preview night that Apple’s Jade would improve for the run and wouldn’t finish in the first five in the Champion Hurdle, so how strong is that form?
The New One has been confirmed for the Champion Hurdle over the Stayers’ Hurdle in the last week and Nigel Twiston-Davies centred his case around being only 1lb behind the current favourite, Yanworth, on official ratings. He also added that he was beaten 8l last season but different tactics can see him go closer this time. He has been beaten three times in the Champion Hurdle before however and it’s also been 23 years since a horse unplaced in the previous year’s race came out on top 12 months later.
The word doing the rounds on the preview evening circuit is that Barry Geraghty was set to choose Yanworth over Buveur D’Air before his fall at Kempton ruled him out of the Festival through injury. Better ground would suit Yanworth but soft ground would be in favour of J P McManus’s other big hope, Buveur D’Air. He also plans to run the dual Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours.
There is an argument that Footpad picked up some cheap late gains when second to Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Champion Hurdle but he’s a strong stayer so many can see where Willie Mullins is coming from when he hopes that Cheltenham will suit him better than the dual Grade 1 winner at Leopardstown this season so feels that he has a chance of reversing placings. The fact that Petit Mouchoir’s owners are contemplating supplementing Tombstone doesn’t instil confidence for his chance, though that plan may now be shelved after the conqueror of Jezki in the Red Mills Hurdle was given a very tempting handicap mark for the County Hurdle.
Sticking with Mullins and last season’s third Nichols Canyon looks like missing Cheltenham altogether and be held back for the Punchestown Festival. On the other hand Mullins plans to run the runaway 2015 County Hurdle winner Wicklow Brave who has since beaten the Ascot Gold Cup winner and Arc third, Order Of St George, when causing an upset in the Irish St Leger. For many he will be hard to fancy not having run over hurdles since his third to Identity Thief in last season’s Fighting Fifth 16 months ago but he has improved on the Flat since then and it wasn’t all that long ago when he ran in the Melbourne Cup so it’s not as if he has been off the course for a very long time. The softer the ground the better his chance.”
16:10 Mares Hurdle
“Willie Mullins commented that Vroum Vroum Mag was on antibiotics after her laboured victory at Doncaster in January where he felt that she was brewing a cold and she all looks set to attempt to defend her Mares Hurdle title with Limini in the same ownership very likely to be heading to the Champion Hurdle.
Apple’s Jade is the clear second-favourite and narrowly beat Vroum Vroum Mag in the Hatton’s Grace in December when she held a fitness advantage on her rival who was having her seasonal debut. The general feeling is that a fully-fit and on-song Vroum Vroum Mag has an extra gear over Apple’s Jade to call upon at the business end of the race.
The Irish look to dominate this race as Jer’s Girl is third-favourite and expected to be a far better mare in the spring so maybe don’t read too much into her two defeats this season. She has been freshened up since Christmas and won two Grade 1 races last spring.
The best British-trained hope looks to be the progressive Lifeboat Mona for Paul Nicholls after showing a good turn of foot to win at Ascot and then guts aplenty when following up at Sandown, but no surprise if this ends up being an Irish 1-2-3.”