The Cheltenham Festival 2016: The Big Preview
The biggest week of the year in National Hunt racing is fast approaching. The Sports Gazette takes a look at the feature races over the exhilarating four days, with expert opinion throw in.
Countless arguments have been made at Cheltenham preview nights up and down the country and across the Irish sea, in anticipation to the week ahead. At 1:28pm on Tuesday afternoon, the talking will stop, replaced instead with the roar of the Prestbury crowd which gathers from a few half-hearted murmurs to a cohort of passionate shouts , sending goosebumps through those observing and climaxing once the tape is raised for the first of 28 races.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
Prestbury Park's first day feature takes place over a fast and furious two miles on the new course and if all forecasts are correct will be run on good to soft ground. Leading up to the race there have been some notable defections with last year's winner Faugheen and runner up Arctic Fire both sidelined, leaving an open feel to the race.
Despite these absentees, Willie Mullins still has a stranglehold with Annie Power installed as 9/4 favourite. The eight year-old mare has only had two runs since racing's £50 million pound last flight fall in the Mares Hurdle at last year's festival. The drop back to two miles after running in the World Hurdle at three miles two years ago and facing the opposite sex again does raise questions, although race conditions are in her favour.
Speaking at a Cheltenham Preview night at Ganley's in South West London, top flight jockey Noel Fehily feels she has to be feared by all.
He said: "Two and half miles is probably her best trip, but she has got a bit of class getting seven pounds off the field in a weak champion hurdle."
Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici make up the Mullins contigent for the race, with the former needing to put a lacklustre display well behind him after finishing 28 lengths behind Faugheen. The six year-old, Identity Thief who runs for Irish trainer Henry De Bromhead won the Fighting Fifth hurdle at Newcastle back in November, a key mid-season grade one. He is a lightly raced improver, chalked in third best in the market.
All three geldings are closely matched on form, while Sempre Medici, who beat Identity Thief by five lengths at Fairyhouse last year and who also has some good course form to his name, is a large 25/1 with bookies at this stage.
The British have only won the race four times in the past ten years, the last one being Rock on Ruby for Paul Nicholl's in 2011. The New One heads the home challenge having finished fifth behind Faugheen last year and an unlucky third the year before after being hampered by the ill fated Our Conor. Seven Barrows, the yard of Nicky Henderson, will unleash five equine darts at the race including Top Notch, Hargam, Sign of a Victory, Peace and Co and My Tent or Yours who all look likely to take their chances.
The latter, to be ridden by Barry Geraghty, reappears after nearly two years off the track and pleased connections at Kempton in a racecourse gallop alongside Hargam a few weeks ago. He goes well fresh but his tendency to race keenly has been a hindrance in the past and will be fitted with a Norton citation bit in an attempt to reduce the effect of over-racing.
Former top jockey Mick Fitzgerald who retains close ties with the Henderson yard is upbeat about My Tent or Your's credentials.
He said: "If he relaxes and it looked like they might go a gallop he must be a player."
Camping Ground who is the highest rated on figures and the plucky and durable Lil Rockerfeller for small up and coming trainer Neil King, make up the field.
Advised: 1pt E/W > Sempre Medici
Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
The first place to start is Un De Sceaux, who won the Arkle Novice Chase impressively on the first day in 2015 and is set to go off a skinny proposition.
The Edward O'Connell owned charge who is as short as 4/6 with the bookies for Wednesday's feature has so far ran 16 times under rules, winning 14 and falling on the other two occassions. In the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas, the eight-year-old was typically travelling well under Ruby Walsh coming to the second last, but didn't come up in Walsh's hands when asked to take off, and hit the fence and the deck in the same sentence.
Whilst his jumping will be a niggling concern for some, his performance at Ascot in January which saw him beat Sire De Grugy puts him at the top of the list in terms of the best form on offer.
At the Ladbroke's Cheltenham Preview, former Champion Jockey John Francombe couldn't find much fault with him.
He said: "It's there for Un De Sceaux to lose really. He's looks head and shoulders above eveything else. He was outstanding last year when he won the Arkle."
Sire De Grugy who provided an emotional victory for connections, bringing rider Jamie Moore to tears after the race two years ago, still put in a valiant performance in that race which followed on from a gutsy success in the Tingle Creek at Sandown Park. Despite his advancing years, his run style and proven form at the Festival are powerful attributes to have.
On March 2nd at Betfair's live Cheltenham preview, PR Manager Barry Orr remained adamant that he would gain support on the day.
He said: "He would have to have some sort of a chance. He seems to be in fine fettle, I heard Gary Moore waxing lyrical about him."
Last year's winner Dodging Bullets looks to secure back to back wins in the race on the back of just one run this season at Newbury where he finished a disappointing 10 lengths second behind Top Gamble, which is some way off his performance of last year. He suffered a splint problem earlier in the campaign which is the reason why he's had just one run, and could come on significantly.
The 10-year-old Sprinter Sacre, who looked imperious winning the race in 2013, could be giving it one last go to regain his crown, having not been quite the same horse since coming back from an irregular heartbeat. He showed battling attributes to overcome Sire De Grugy at Kempton in December and the conditions will suit his strong travelling nature of racing.
Special Tiara kept on bravely last year after a bold front running performance and has numerous pieces of form which put him right up their with those at the forefront of the market. His six length beating of Sprinter Sacre in April last year and unlucky defeat by Sire De Grugy in the Tingle Creek in December when he was hampered at the last fence, make him a fordiable opponent for any horse at two miles.
Of those at bigger prices, God's Own, Sizing Granite and Somersby could pick up the pieces should the unexpected happen.
Advised: 1pt e/w Sizing Granite
Ryanair World Hurdle
The 2015/16 National Hunt season has not yet gone to plan for Cole Harden fans.. Well beaten at Newbury and Cheltenham, his trainer Warren Greatrex, who enjoyed his finest moment as a handler courtesy of his victory in the race last year, has reiterated to the press that the World Hurdle has been the focus from the start, and has taken more positives than negatives from those efforts.
With the ground at Cheltenham drying up he should have at least each way claims.
The horse figureheading bookie's boards is the hugely improved Thistlecrack for the Colin Tizzard team. The eight-year-old has improved 33 pounds since his run around this time last year in the Imperial Cup, and has been very impressive when running out a facile winner in both the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle and in the Cleeve Hurdle.
He has developed into one of the most exciting horses in training and if he improves again will no doubt be coming down the Cheltenham travelling like a good thing.
Alpha des Obeaux trained by veteran trainer Mouse Morris came up against Thistlecrack at Aintree last year and was only a length down before capsizing at the last flight. He has also improved considerably, pulverising At Fishers Cross at Gowran Park in January.
Speaking at the Boylesports preview evening, top trainer Gordon Elliott likes the chances of the Gigginstown charge.
He said: "I think Mouses' horse is the value. I had him as a four year-old point to pointer, he's the highest rated four year-old of that season and Mouse will have him right on the day."
Paul Nicholl's enjoyed success in the race four times with the unmissable Big Buck's. Saphir De Rheu has a similar profile to him in that he reverts to hurdling after an albeit brief chasing stint. He was well beaten by Thistlecrack at Ascot but was second in this race last year and demands huge respect. Nicholl's also saddles Aux Ptits Soins who has not been seen since winning this time last year in the Coral Cup and is very much a dark horse.
With Vroum Vroum Mag now set on the less demanding option of the Mares Hurdle given Annie Power's engagement on the first day, Whisper, Kilcooley and Prince of Scars could be types to serve it up to those at the head of the market.
Attheraces presenter Gary O'Brien speaking on the Betfair preview panel is confident that Whisper ridden by Nico de Boinville will put in a positive showing on the day.
He said: "You would give him no chance on two runs this season, but he ran very well in this race last year after a bad preparation and I wouldn't be surprised if he followed Thistlecrack home."
Kilcooley who is trained in Chipping Norton by Charlie Longsdon, easily came clear of former Champion Hurdler Rock on Ruby at Wetherby last October at comes into the race fresh as a daisy and with still much potential, although he has not tasted Cheltenham yet. The same can be said for Prince of Scars who is very lightly raced six year-old and beat Alpha Des Obeaux at Leopardstown in December.
Advised: 2pt win > Thistlecrack
Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup
Ryanair's chief executive and owner of Gigginstown House Stud, Michael O'Leary, tasted success in jump racing's most presitigious prize in 2006 with War of Attrition and arguably has his best chance of winning it again with three live contenders all likely to line up in front of the stands at 3:30pm on the final day.
Road to Riches, the least fancied of the three put in a sensational effort last year in the race to finish an honourable third behind Djakadam and Coneygree. His run in the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February was some way below his best when unable to make an impression behind Carlingford Lough who also takes his chance for John Kiely.
Don Cossack heads the market at this stage and was given a confidence booster last time at Thurles in January after falling two fences out in the King George. His record at Cheltenham has not yet matched his performances elsewhere, but if he becomes the choice of the Gigginstown retained rider Bryan Cooper, it would speak volumes for his chances.
Talking at StarSports Cheltenham preview, Channel 4 Presenter Tanya Stevenson revealed herself as being a supporter of Don Cossack and feels the extra distance will bring out the best in him.
She said: "Where he was third in the Ryanair Chase, two out he was starting to make his run having had 35 flat spots in the race and he ran into the back of two horses which stopped him when he was beginning to make his run and then ran on strongly."
"The further they went, the better he went."
Don Poli makes it an almost agonizing choice for Cooper and will be saddled by the Mullins team. An ultra impressive winner of the RSA chase, the novice version of this race on the Thursday last year, his tendency to race lazily and only do as much as required makes it difficult to know how what is left in the tank despite having had 12 races. His record at the Cheltenham Festival is an unblemished two from two.
The two who were in front of Don Cossack before he fell in the King George were Cue Card and Vautour who fought out an enthralling finish, with Cue Card edging it by a head.
Cue Card who has become the apple of jockey Paddy Brennan's eye, is better than ever and is going for a huge £1 bonus should he cross the line in front. The Tizzard trained 10 year-old acts at Cheltenham as his Ryanair Chase win in 2013 showed, and if this season is anything to go by, should put up a bold display.
Vautour, ran a race of jumping and galloping prowess in the JLT last year, which was visually the most impressive performance of the whole meeting and he only ran out of petrol in the closing stages at Kempton on Boxing Day. The question lingers of whether he can truly stay the extended three miles and two and a half furlongs, but his class is there for all to see.
Leading trainer Paul Nicholl's speaking at Betfair's preview evening, is impressed by the Susannah Ricci owned seven year-old is and is optimistic about his chances.
He said: "Ruby think's a very good horse, I'll think he'll stay."
Djakadam makes it an awkward choice for Walsh and the Ricci's. A close second in this contest last year looking at brief moment like he was going to win, the seven year-old comes into the race on the back of a fall in the trial race here at the end of January but was impressive the time before when pulverising rapidly improving stablemate Valseur Lido.
Mullins has not yet won the Gold Cup but could also saddle On His Own and Sir Des Champs to give him the numerical advantage.
Hennessy winner Smad Place who has been enjoying a change to front running tactics and won the trial over course and distance in January could be a tough nut to pass if he has it his own way and the Alan King stable remain in good form leading up to the meeting.
Advised: 1pt e/w > Don Poli