Horse Racing

Cheltenham Festival: Day one preview

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GiveMeSport contributor Will Rooney previews the first day of the famous Cheltenham Festival... 

1.30 – Supreme Novices Hurdle (2 miles)

This is a great race to get the festival under way. Heading the market is Paul Nicholls’ Irving, and rightly so.

He has been superb this season, winning every race he’s contested in. Last time out, he cruised in the Dovecot Hurdle at Kempton, quickening up with a shake of the reigns. I was previously keen on Irving.

However, the old saying horses for courses worries me. Although Nicholls is convinced Irving will get up the hill at Cheltenham, I’m not quite sure. However, I think he does justify favouritism.

Willie Mullins’ Vautour is next in the betting. His yard seem very confident. However, I am not. I don’t think its beaten too much over the season. Last time out, he beat the well fancied The Tullow Tank.

However, I'm convinced TTT was not himself that day and jockey Ruby Walsh was allowed to have his own say out in front on Vautour.

Further, the way I look at it that in January, Vautour beat 18/1 shot for the Supreme Western Boy by three parts of a length. How can Vautour be 3/1 and Western Boy 18/1 when only just under a length separates them.

I much prefer Mullins’ other entry Wicklow Brave. He seems to have a very good burst of speed, which may be needed this year. If he improves his jumping, he definitely has a chance, as he blundered the last.

I find it interesting that Barry Geraghty has chose to Vaniteux than Josses Hill. I prefer Andrew Tinkler’s ride on the latter to Henderson’s Vaniteux.

Josses Hill was a runner up in the Tolworth last time out, just losing out to a classic AP McCoy ride on stable mate Royal Boy.

This compares to Vaniteux who last time out, only won a Class 4. I think Josses Hill is fast improving and will be a very good chaser.

A horse at 20/1 who is a massive price is The Liquidator. Although he was very disappointing in the Tolworth, trainer David Pipe said that the track at Kempton would not suit (originally meant to be at Sandown) along with the bottomless ground. The Liquidator will relish conditions at Cheltenham. He was fourth in the Champion Bumper last year and dispatched 150 rated Sea Lord at the track early this season. If the ground keeps quickening he will love front running here and could well set a pace too hot for the rest to handle.

Pick – 1pt each way on The Liquidator

2.05 Arkle Novice Chase (2 miles)

We have a fantastic Arkle on our hands this year. The two mile Novices Chase has been won by some superb horses in the past including Tidal Bay, Sizing Europe and Captain Chris.

The last two years have gone to Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty, with Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig winning at short prices.

Henderson sees himself in a different situation this year. He runs former Stan James International Hurdle winner Grandouet in this.

A hat trick for the champion trainer is highly unlikely this year. Since going over the larger obstacles, he has not lived up to his potential.

After unseating Barry Geraghty first time out whilst struggling to Paul Nicholl’s Hinterland, he has been beaten by Hinterland again followed by a trouncing by my fancy.

Dodging Bullets has been super impressive since going over fences. He was a very decent hurdler, fourth in the 2012 Triumph Hurdle and third in the 2012 Christmas Hurdle.

On his debut over fences in October which resulted in an easy win, he has since won two Grade Two races seeing off Grandouet and Alan King’s Raya Star. However it is the Nicholls horse’s most recent performance that most impressed me. Running for the first time outside of Novice Company, he was giving Haldon Gold Cup runner up 3lbs and battled to finish second by a neck. That performance was extremely impressive and will have gave him a lot of confidence.

Importantly, Dodging Bullets has Cheltenham form, winning there three times including once this season. The drying ground too will definitely help Dodging Bullets, as Paul Nicholls has stated many times leading up to the race.

Two time Cheltenham Festival winner Champagne Fever will likely go off a short priced favourite. I suspect it'll be about 15/8 at the off and with his Cheltenham form it’s hard to blame.

However, he’s difficult to back after a poor campaign. The 2013 Supreme Novice Winner has only had two runs over fences. His first run at Punchestown was an easy win for the Willie Mullins trained horse and fairly impressive, however his second run in the Racing Post Novice Chase was not. I think that Champagne Fever struggles when he does not get the running, and in race at Leopardstown this is what happened. I think that the Mullins horse is exposed. His schooling session last week at Leopardstown was his best bit of work according to Mullins, however for the most part he was running on his own.

Rock On Ruby is trained by Harry Fry and was the best hurdler of the field. He won the Champion Hurdle in 2012 and second in 2013. He’s won twice over fences since the switch, with his latter run coming over Grand Annual fancy Mr Mole.

The ground is drying which Harry Fry has been begging for. Ruby’s season has been interrupted because of the bad weather and Harry Fry has been desperate for more prep runs. Yet, there are several reasons why I don’t fancy him. First of all, over his two runs, he’s only beat three horses. Secondly, Ruby was meant to be for another campaign towards the Champion Hurdle. However on his seasonal reappearance, he was crushed by The New One and forced to go over fences

Trifolium has a huge chance for Charles Byrnes in the Gigginstown House Stud silks and is Dodging Bullets’ main threat.. He already has Cheltenham form, finishing third in the Supreme in 2011 behind Cinders and Ashes and Darlan. He has solid form in Ireland, cruising on his chase debut, followed by runner up spots to very good horses in Felix Younger and Defy Logic. However Trifolium reversed the form impressively when needing two on his two former victors. Under a cool ride by Bryan Cooper sitting patiently, he moved to the lead with two out and easily kept hold of that lead, leaving Felix Younger, Defy Logic and Mozoltov well behind. The fact that Cooper chose to ride Trifoliom over Mozoltov says a lot. He handles the ground too, with his third in the Supreme coming on good to soft and has hit form very much when needing to.

I'm not convinced on Alan King’s Valdez. Although he has won three times this season which included the Racing Post’s Lightning Chase, he has faced very poor competition throughout the season. This is a step up in class. Valdez usually likes to come from the back, as he did in the Lightning, however I think the pace will be too much and jockey Choc Thornton will be well off the pace coming into the home straight.

Pick – 1.5 pt win on Dodging Bullets

3.20 – Champion Hurdle (2 miles)

Hurricane Fly is likely to go off a short priced favourite going for his third Champion Hurdle. He’s had a very good campaign this year, recording a record 19 Grade One victories. Furthering this is that he’s already saw off contenders Our Conor and Jezki twice.

Reports from Ireland are that Dessie Hughes really fancies Our Conor. It was ultra-impressive in the Triumph Hurdle last year, cruising to a 15 length victory. However, he should have won the Irish Champion Hurdle. HF blundered the last with Our Conor being inch perfect however, even carrying 2lbs less, he could not get his nose in front. The Fly stayed on much better on a flat track, so there is no reason why Our Conor will stay on up the hill.

The improving weather will certainly have Nicky Henderson smiling like a Cheshire Cat. He fields My Tent Or Yours, second in last years Supreme. I think that he holds a great chance here, however MTOY struggled up the hill last year. Who says he won't again?

I love Nigel Twiston-Davies’ The New One. He won the Neptune as a novice last year and followed up by a close second to Zarkandar in the Aintree Hurdle, beating the likes of Oscar Whisky and Grandouet. He’s already gave 2012 winner Rock On Ruby a thrashing this year that sent him chasing and well reversed his form with Zarkandar. He was second to My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle. I’m sure TNO would have won that by a few lengths if he did not blunder the last. He is proven to get up the hill and has stayed further than two miles. Moreover, he has an excellent turn of foot.

Pick – 3pt win on The New One

4.00 - Mares Hurdle (2 mile 5 furlongs)

All eyes will be on Quevega to land he reckoned 6th Cheltenham Festival win. It’s hard to see past her, with Willie Mullins intentionally keeping Annie Power out of this race. At 4/5 she is very backable and should win. She is an easy double/ treble addition if you are planning so.

When looking for each way places, its easy to look at Mullins’ second string horse Glens Melody. She has raced several times in Britain this year and beaten once by the very good More Of That trained by Jonjo O’Neil.

However I love Cockney Sparrow, who is big at 10/1. She was second behind My Tent Or Yours in Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and was going well when chasing Annie Power before falling.

Pick – 1pt each way on Cockney Sparrow

2.40 – Handicap Chase (3 miles)

Jonjo O’Neil has won this twice in recent years and he runs Holywell. He’s won his last two races and I like his chances.

However I much prefer Nicky Henderson’s Hadrian’s Approach. Third last year in the RSA Chase, Henderson has said he will relish the drying ground. He battled well when winning at Newbury last time out and has not received a penalty for that win.

4.40 – National Hnt Amatuer Chase (4 miles)

Ireland really like Foxrock for Martin Walsh in this race. He’s won on decent ground before and has won his last two.

However I think Alan King’s Midnight Prayer is definitely in with an each way shout, winning easily last time out.

5.15 – Novice Handicap Chase (2 miles 4 furlongs)

I was at a preview night at Haydock last week. All seem very keen on Charlie Longsdon’s Pendra. Although he disappointed last time out, he was eying the Arkle at first. People seem very keen on him to win this.

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