Cheltenham Festival: Previewing the Championship grade 1 races

Ascot Races

The Cheltenham Festival kicks off at 1.30pm on Tuesday, March 13 with the famous roar that greets the start of the first race.

From there it is a dizzying rollercoaster of four days, 28 races, 14 Grade 1s and five championship events that pit the very best horses, jockeys and trainers against each other.

The main event on day one is the Champion Hurdle. Last year’s winner Buveur D’Air looks comfortable in the crown, but if the 2015 winner Faugheen returns to his best he could be all but impossible to beat.

Kempton Races

His stablemate Yorkhill similarly has the latent talent, he like Faugheen is a two-time festival winner, but he like Faugheen has been a shadow of himself this season. Hence Buveur D’Air is heavy odds-on and punters are looking to the likes of Wicklow Brave in the each-way market.

The day two feature, the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, has a very similar feel to day one’s, with a Nicky Henderson-trained odds-on favourite - in this case Altior - facing opposition from talented Willie Mullins inmates with plenty of question marks - Douvan and Min.

Until last month there were question marks surrounding Altior as well, but at Newbury he utterly dismissed Politologue - who had racked up three wins at the trip in the winter’s biggest races in his absence.

Douvan on the other hand has not been seen since becoming the shortest priced favourite beaten at the festival this century when sent off 2-9. That highlights the wondrous ability he does possess and if back to his best he could really serve it up to Altior in what would be the clash of the week, while Min was beaten seven lengths by Altior in the Supreme two years ago and is yet to post a performance to suggest he is capable of reversing that, so it is all on Douvan to turn this potential procession for Altior into a mouthwatering contest.

Punchestown Races

The switch from the Old course to the New marks a change from one-horse markets and Thursday’s card features two championship races that look wide open. The Sun Bet Stayers’ Hurdle is the sort of race where the list of horses without a chance is much shorter than the one of those that do.

Last year’s Coral Cup winner Supasundae heads the market after beating Faugheen over two miles last time, but this is over a mile further and Sam Spinner, who has dominated the staying scene in Britain this winter, is sure to serve it up to him. Yanworth and Bacardys abort novice chasing campaigns in a bid for glory over hurdles, while Penhill has not been seen since winning last year’s novice equivalent, but possesses the ability to figure, as do the ever-game L’Ami Serge, The New One and last year’s odds-on favourite Unowhatimeanharry.

The Ryanair Chase has a more solid look with Un De Sceaux, last year’s ultra-impressive winner of the race, a worthy market leader. But at ten now he is more vulnerable and the likes of Waiting Patiently, unbeaten this season, Top Notch, Balko Des Flos, Cloudy Dream and the 12-year-old Cue Card, who won this in 2013 and has contested the Gold Cup in recent years, are all nipping at his heels. Min too could switch from the Champion Chase should Douvan be in fine fettle to add further depth to the race.

Ascot Races

The meeting’s biggest race, Friday’s Gold Cup, has a similarly open feel. No-one would dispute Might Bite is a sublimely talented individual, but his waywardness make him difficult to back with confidence. Native River showed a lot better in his sole start - but he found two too good in this last year.

Cases of varying strength can be made for Our Duke, Killultagh Vic, Road To Respect, who won decisively at the meeting last year, Definitly Red, Total Recall, Minella Rocco, Djakadam and Edwulf in what is the sort of Gold Cup in which everyone lining up will feel they have a chance.

Apple’s Jade and her full sister Apple’s Shakira are other potential stars, while of the novice hurdlers it is all about Samcro. In the novice chases the clash between Footpad, Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados could be the race of the meeting in the Racing Post Arkle - unless Presenting Percy, Monalee, Black Corton and Invitation Only all line up in the RSA Chase.

Hold on, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.

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