John Doyle’s race by race guide to the opening two days of the festival, with all of his top picks for every hurdle and chase
Wednesday, March 15th
Neptune Novices hurdle
This promises to be a fascinating race with a couple of impressive unbeaten horses, Finian’s Oscar and Neon Wolf going to battle this out. Finian’s Oscar is held in very high regard by the Colin Tizzard team and has been super impressive in his wins to date. He won the Tolworth hurdle very well and is a top prospect. Equally, Harry Fry waxes lyrical about Neon Wolf. His last time out win at Haydock was really impressive and he was heavily supported to achieve that. In the build up to Cheltenham, all the strong support has come for Neon Wolf. Willie Mullins has some strong contenders led by Bacardys but you feel the top two will be hard to beat.
Selection: Finian’s Oscar
Another super tough handicap to solve. The form of the Lanzarote hurdle at Kempton this season is red hot and the winner that day, Modus won easily. Paul Nicholls has not run him since and if the improvement Modus showed for that step up in trip continues, he will be right there at the finish as the fast pace will suit. Peregrine Run is another improving sort who won well at the course in November and will run a big race. No Comment also has a progressive profile and could be in the mix
This Championship race for the staying Novice chasers is usually a tough test. This year, the market is headed by the Nicky Henderson trained Might Bite. Might Bite was a last fence faller at Kempton with the Feltham Grade 1 at his mercy. He has subsequently had a hack round Doncaster but realistically is only favourite because some of the more fancied horses blotted their copybook. The most interesting horse in the race is Alpha Des Obeaux. Last season, he was the only horse able to go with Thistlecrack over hurdles. His chasing campaign got off to a good start but then he was pulled up over Christmas with broken blood vessel. His trainer, Mouse Morris, is top class at getting horses ready at home for the big day and recently the support has started to come for him. He could start favourite on the day.
Selection: Alpha Des Obeaux
Queen Mother Champions Chase
Douvan is a super animal and will win with a clear round. The rest are playing for places but he may not win by much as in his runs to date, he has been least impressive at Cheltenham, so he may not win by a long distance, despite his superiority. Fox Norton impresses as a likely runner up but he has had an interrupted preparation, so it might best to rely on God’s Own for a place
Cross Country Chase
The Cross Country Chase has been farmed by Enda Bolger since its inception and therefore it is no surprise to see Cantlow as a short priced favourite for this renewal. This horse has been transformed by moving to this discipline and while he got beat over the course in January, at the revised weights and with Jamie Codd getting to know the horse better, he will be hard to beat. The French raider, Urgent De Gregaine, was very impressive in January but this is more difficult. JP McManus has a couple more dangers with last year’s Kim Muir winner, Cause of Causes, and Auvergnat both have a decent chance too
Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle
This race has really worked out well at the Festival. By giving the less lights in the Juvenile division a race, the big field lottery of the Triumph has gone away. One horse who stands out as well handicapped here is Divin Bere for the Nicky Henderson team. In his last run at Huntingdon, Divin Bere gave 5lb to Master Blue Eyes and beat him. With Master Blue Eyes rated much higher now, Divin Bere looks a player here. Paul Nicholls has targeted this race too and his Dreamcatching was a very impressive winner at Wincanton and will be a player too. Gordon Elliott runners should be monitored closely too.
Selection: Divin Bere
The most noticeable thing about Bumpers in general this year is the lack of impressive winners over the winter. The horses who have impressed most are Carter McKay & Ballyward for the Willie Mullins team. Carter McKay is owned by Pearl Bloodstock and has won both his Bumpers, not impressively first time out but much better on his second start. He has been hyped up while there is little talk of Ballyward in the build up to the Festival. He won impressively over 2m 4f at Christmas and may just be the sort of strong stayer that wins this race.
Tuesday, March 14th
Supreme Novice Hurdle
The start of the 2017 festival is a wide open puzzle this year. Usually, we would expect a Willie Mullins hotpot to be dominating the market but that has not happened this year. The Mullins battalion is headed by Melon, a horse who has been hyped up and as it stands is too short a price for what he has shown on the course. Mullins 2nd string, Bunk off Early, will be suited by the strong pace and if he settles, could be a big danger. The strongest form is held by the winners of the last two editions of the Champion Bumper, Moon Racer & Ballyandy but both have other options at the Festival. Moon Racer is a fragile sort but when right looks exceptional. If running here, he will be hard to beat. Ballyandy, however is not far behind and was an impressive winner of the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, the sort of strong run race that is ideal preparation for this test. He has other entries but is a big player for this race
Yet again the Arkle Trophy has boiled down to be a one horse race. Altior has been supremely impressive over fences so far and with the exception of the injured min, nothing has looked to be in the same league. A safe round of jumping will see him home
Selection: Altior Ultima
The handicaps are so competitive at the Festival now that you need a young, progressive horse on your side. It is noticeable too that course experience is a must for the winners of these races. Champers on Ice for the David Pipe team, who won the race last season with a similar type, looks an ideal type for this race. He has a good combination of improving form and good Festival form to make him a big player here. Singlefarmpayment is another unexposed type who has been talked about as a Grade 1 performer in the future who could have the edge for this race
Selection: Champers on Ice
This year’s race has been heavily afflicted by the withdrawal of many of the star hurdlers. It is likely that this will be the biggest field for years with many fancying their chance of victory. Taking the form into account, JP McManus has a super chance of taking the prize. Yanworth doesn’t impress everyone but is the sort of horse who could grind out a Champion Hurdle win. The Henderson trained Buveur D’Air is held in very high regard by a man who knows how to win the race. The Irish form looks suspect and the feeling is that Limini beat a not fully fit Apples Jade with ideal run last time, so the form is overrated. It would be interesting to know Barry Geraghty’s pick!
This year’s Mares hurdle has a very competitive look to it, although all the best Mares are trained in Ireland with Willie Mullins holding the ace cards. Last year’s winner, Vroum Vroum Mag, is a short enough favourite considering the negative vibes about her current wellbeing. In her last race at Doncaster, she had a hard race to beat an inferior rival. The Mullins team also have Limini as a potential runner. Limini won the Mares novice last year and produced a fine performance to beat Apples Jade recently. It is unlikely both these Mares will run in the race. Apples Jade, despite the defeat recently, looks just the type for this race and Gordon Elliott will have been working towards this day all season.
Selection: Apples Jade
National Hunt Chase
This is a tough 4 mile race for Novice chasers but in recent years, more and more good horses have taken part before going on to achieve much better things. The Gigginstown owned, A Genie in abottle, has been heavily supported for this race mainly based on the fact top amateur, Jamie Codd, is expected to ride. His form looks like that of one who needs a trip but it isn’t overly persuasive. Arpege D’alene for the Paul Nicholls team does look an out and out stayer who will be ideally suited by this test. He doesn’t stop galloping but can make the odd jumping mistake. That aside, he will not give up and will be running on when others have cried enough. Edwulf, Beware the bear and Martello Tower are others to consider
Selection: Arpege D’alene
Close Brothers Handicap Chase
This is an amazingly tight 0- 140 handicap for novice chasers. The most of the runners are in the 137 – 140 range making the race almost level weights. The one progressive chaser that stands out is Foxtail for the Nigel Twiston-Davies team. Following a win at Kempton, despite jumping out left all way round, he made all over the course to win easily on his last start. While it will be difficult to dictate like that again here, he could get in rhythm and be hard to catch. Tully East is another who has run well in the top novice races in Ireland who could be well handicapped. Aqua Dude and Romain de Senam are others to consider