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All Roads To The Cheltenham Festival

With the flat season coming to an end it is time we turn our attention to the jumps which starts properly at Chepstow this weekend. We have picked out some horses for you to follow as all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival. We’ll be taking a look every day this week at some of the races starting with the big races on the Tuesday – Champion Day.

First up is the Supreme Novices Hurdle which potentially sets up your Cheltenham. Lose the first and you’ll feel like you’re on the back foot but win it and you’re immediately in profit. So, who wins? It’s an almost impossible task to pick the winner of this race six months out because we’ve not seen half the runners in action. However, the Champion Bumper often provides clues as to who is likely to go well. Cue Card for example won the Champion Bumper in 2010 beating into second Al Ferof and also beating the great Sprinter Sacre.

The three of them returned a year later to fight over the Supreme Novices which Al Ferof would win and Sprinter Sacre would come third. This leads us to to Envoi Allen and Blue Sari. Envoi Allen is trained by Gordon Elliott who will be concerned at the news Michael O’Leary is stepping back from National Hunt racing so horses like Envoi Allen are likely to be his future. Envoi Allen won brilliantly at Cheltenham and then followed up at Punchestown and cost a small fortune.

On both occasions he was ridden by one of the great amateur jockey’s in Jamie Codd and Codd commented that “he’s one of the best he’s ever sat on”. So, with a smooth build up and no injuries Envoi Allen is sure to give punters a run for their money and at 16/1 is well worth an ante post punt. Arguably, even more interesting is Willie Mullins’ Blue Sari who still has to grow into his frame and looks a lot less imposing than Envoi Allen. Clearly immature, she put up a great performance on that Thursday at Cheltenham only to be run out of it in the closing stages. A full winter behind him and another year under his belt we think that Blue Sari could have developed into a serious horse and is definitely one to keep on side and at a price of 18/1 could be the one to go with. The other name to throw into the mix is Malone Road who cost a cool £325,000 and was unbeaten as a bumper horse before suffering an injury which ruled him out of the Champion Bumper, a race he was favourite for. If showing no ill effects from that injury then this horse could be anything and is one to add to your tracker.

Second is the Arkle which is the second race on the Cheltenham card and often can lead to future Gold Cup winners. Traditionally it’s a tough race to pick apart and even more difficult six months out but as ever the best place to start with this race is Willie Mullins; who won it last year with Duc Des Genievres. This year he’ll likely line up with champion hurdle flop Laurina who had looked the real deal before running such a flat race. Laurina, a seven year old mare has won at the festival before as she decimated the rest of the Mares novices field back in 2017 and in 2018 went off joint favourite with Buveur d’Air and Apples Jade. She had enjoyed a good prep as she cantered to victory at Sandown a few months before the big race and everything pointed to her running well and receiving a 7lb mares allowance there was a feeling she and Apples Jade could serve up a thriller. This feeling was further strengthened when Buveur d’Air fell early. However, Laurina and Apples Jade both wilted under the Gloucestershire sun as Espoir D’Allen surged to victory. Laurina over fences however could be a different proposition however if you can forgive her that bad run. If she can take to jumping she has a serious engine and a turn of foot to boot and is 9/1 favourite with most firms. Keep an eye on her early outings because if she jumps well she’ll be tough to beat.

A horse she’d likely have to beat is Champion Hurdle runner up (2017 & 2018) Melon who is rumoured to be taking on the bigger obstacles this season and who clearly comes alive in March. Don’t be put off if Melon runs poorly in his prep races as he seems to save his best for Cheltenham. Outside of Mullins, Ballymore hero City Island is likely to have a say. City Island, who won so impressively at the Festival, is trained by shrewd operator Martin Brassil and is thought of as a Gold Cup horse in the making. There’s not an obvious standout UK horse at this moment in time so the chances are the Arkle will be heading back to Ireland.

The Champion Hurdle last year ended up being a slight anti climax as the three favourites; Laurina, Apples Jade and Buveur d’Air failed to challenge. Buveur d’Air, twice a champion fell and so can be forgiven but then he lost at Aintree so one wonders if he has already peaked. Laurina will be going over fences this year and Apples Jade will likely be targeting the mares race or the stayers hurdle. Last year’s winner Espoir D’Allen is sadly out for the season and so the favourite is the winner of last year’s Supreme – Klassical Dream. Undoubtedly talented, he’s another from Mullins’ stable but he’s largely unproven and hasn’t beaten all that much so the 7/2 is not that tempting. If you can forgive Buveur d’Air then his price of 6/1 is attractive. The Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills, who won at Aintree as well, belongs to Nicky Henderson is third in the betting but again has only beaten novices. This feels like the most open Champion Hurdle in many a year so it would pay to keep a close eye on early races of the season to see if any horse stands out.

Finally, the Mares Hurdle is another Grade One and has been dominated by Willie Mullins in previous years. He’d have won it again last year but for Ruby Walsh’s mount Benie Des Dieux falling at the last. That fall allowed Dan Skelton to pick up a first Grade One with the mare Roksana who is 8/1 to repeat the feat this time around. It’s almost impossible though to look past Benie Des Dieux who will be aimed at the race, who has won it before and who rebounded from that fall to win so impressively at the Punchestown festival. Laurina could be aimed at this race if a switch to fences doesn’t work out and Apples Jade is always a candidate to run. The impressive novice Honeysuckle warrants a second look but if you pushed us for a day one banker then Benie Des Diuex at 9/4 is it.

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