Under starter’s orders….stage set for 2018 Cheltenham Festival

Under starter's orders Cheltenham Festival stage set
17 March 2017; Eventual winner Rock The World, left, with Robbie Power up, jump the last ahead of Gardefort, with Daryl Jacob up, in the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup Handicap Steeple Chase during the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

The 2018 Cheltenham Festival is upon us and our racing expert John Doyle gives you the lowdown on days one and two of the Festival.

Day One – Tuesday 13th March

Supreme Novice
Getabird is a warm favourite for the opening race following a seemingly impressive win at Punchestown. In that race, he beat Mengli Khan easily enough but the vibes that day were not good for the Gordon Elliott trained horse, so it is easy to see him running better.

Kalashnikov is short enough following his hard race in atrocious conditions at Newbury. The Willie Mullins second string, Sharjah, could play a part as he looked to travel like a good horse until falling at Leopardstown over Christmas. Summerville Boy comes here fresh too and could be involved.

Selection: Mengli Khan
Outsider: Sharjah

Arkle Trophy
The Ankle looks a really good race this year. Footpad has improved greatly for the change to Chasing and will be tough to beat. However, the key to this race is the pace as Saint Calvados, Footpad and Petit Mouchoir all prefer to run from the front.

If they take each other on, the pace will be too fast and the race will set up nicely for those held up, the best of which is Sceau Royal. He has come from off the pace to win his last couple of races and jumps well at speed. Brain Power has had a breathing operation and is another exciting prospect who could be in the mix.

Selection: Sceau Royal
Outsider: Brain Power

Ultima Handicap Chase
Last season, Singlefarmpayment was a heavily supported favourite for this event. He travelled strongly, jumping well and looking the winner everywhere but at the post, where he lost out by a short head.

After a good second on reappearance, he has not performed to the same standard this year but returns here from the same mark. Coo Star Sivola is a super consistent horse for the Nick Williams team. His win at Exeter recently was dominant and he looks to have a good chance in this under Lizzie Kelly.

O O Seven is an interesting contender as he runs well at Cheltenham and looks to be laid out for this by the Nicky Henderson team.

Selection: Coo Star Sivola
Outsider: O O Seven

Champion Hurdle
Buveur D’Air is the reigning Champion Hurdler and has looked to improve this season with a series of impressive wins. He jumps low and fast, travels well and will be hard to beat.

Faugheen returns to Cheltenham after missing the last two Festivals and will do well to regain his crown from 2015. After looking impressive on his return to action, he has disappointed the last two races and will need a big improvement to keep the favourite at bay.

My Tent or Yours will be thereabouts again while Yorkhill would be an interesting contender if allowed to take his chance.

Selection: Buveur D’Air
Outsider: My Tent or Yours

Under starter's orders Cheltenham Festival stage set
14 March 2017; Jockey Noel Fehily celebrates as he enters the winners enclosure after winning the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy on Buveur D’Air during the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park, in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Mare’s Hurdle
Apple’s Jade is a superstar Mare who returns to defend her crown from 2017 when she got the better of the Willie Mullins runners in a titanic battle.

Unbeaten since, she has delivered three top class efforts this season and would be towards the head of the market in the Champion or Stayers Hurdle if connections preferred. She will be very tough to beat, barring accidents. Again, the Willie Mullins team will provide the main opposition but those runners are not in as strong a form this year.

Vroum Vroum Mag will be making her seasonal debut and Let’s Dance has patchy form. Benie Des Dieux has been chasing this season, so that would be a negative. An interesting outsider is Jers Girl, who wouldn’t need to find too much improvement to be involved.

Selection: Apple’s Jade
Outsider: Jers Girl

National Hunt Chase
The National Hunt Chase has started to attract some seriously good horses in recent years with future Grade 1 winners aplenty taking part. This year an array of good horses are lining up.

Elegant Escape from the Colin Tizzard stable is the leading the way. This horse has solid Grade 1 form but looks an out and out stayer who will be well suited by this test.

Dounikos represents last season’s winning connections but he gives the impression that he surprises every time as he has been sent off unfancied in many of his races. He looks a favourite to take on. Jury Duty from the Elliott stable too has run good races and again looks to need a trip.

Selection: Elegant Escape
Outsider: Jury Duty

Close Brothers Handicap
The big gamble of the race, De Plotting Shed, is hard to get excited about as he always seems to find one too good. In this big field, he will find it tough and will not be used to it.

Movewiththetimes has looked a Cheltenham Festival winner waiting to happen since his fine second in last season’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Given all his runs over fences at Cheltenham, likely to be suited by the fast pace, he will be held up and should travel well into the race. Any Second Now could also run well as could Kalondra and Divine Spear.

Selection: Movewiththetimes
Outsider: Kalondra

Under starter's orders Cheltenham Festival stage set
13 March 2017; Trainer Willie Mullins on the gallops prior to the start of the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park, in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Day Two – Wednesday 14th March

Ballymore Novice Hurdle
The big Irish Banker for the week, Samcro runs here. This horse is one of the few hyped up horses who has matched the expectation on the track. This horse has a superb temperament and travels and jumps with ease.

He will be very hard to beat. In any ordinary year, Next Destination and On the blind Side would be strong favourites for this race. They have very decent form and will be in the mix here but will need Samcro to underperform. Vinndication is an exciting prospect for Kim Bailey and could give a big run.

Selection: Samcro
Outsider: Vinndication

RSA Chase
The main contenders for the RSA Chase in 2018 come from Ireland where Presenting Percy and Monalee lead the way on form. Presenting Percy looks a thorough stayer who will be well suited by the race.

The slight doubt about him is the hard race he endured at Gowran Park. Monalee has had two impressive wins and a bad fall in between. This horse has a big engine but can pull hard early in his races which may make it hard for him to see out the trip.

There is a possibility he switches to JLT if the ground is softer. Black Corton has a super partnership with Bryony Frost and there will be some cheering if they could come up the hill in front.

Selection: Monalee
Outsider: Black Corton

Coral Cup
Nicky Henderson has a good record in this race and fields William Henry as a strong fancy following his win in the Lanzarote at Kempton. In that race, he travelled smoothly and stayed on strongly under riding sensation, James Bowen, who is likely to ride again.

Of those behind, Topofthegame has most improvement and this giant horse will relish the hill at Cheltenham. Bleu et Rouge ran a fine second in the Betfair Hurdle and will likely improve for this step up in trip too. Le Breuil is another to consider as he has looked to be an improver from a stable that is good at bringing horses along.

Selection: Le Breuil
Outsider: Topofthegame

Under starter's orders Cheltenham Festival stage set
14 March 2017; Nico de Boinville celebrates winning the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Steeple Chase on Altior during the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park, in Cheltenham, England. Photo by Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Queen Mother Champion Chase
As ever, this is the most breath-taking race of the week and it has the potential to be a real cracker if Douvan takes his chance to put it up to Altior.

Douvan had been utterly dominant until injury intervened in last year’s renewal. Not seen since, he is reported to be on track to return in this race. Altior has followed an upward trajectory too, winning the Supreme Novice in 2016 and the Arkle last season. This is the best horse in training and will likely improve for his first run of the season at Newbury.

The Mullins team also have Min but it is hard to see him turning Supreme Novice form around with Altior. Politologue has been winning Grade 1 races early in the season and will not be far away.

Selection: Altior
Outsider: Politologue

Cross Country Chase
Last season’s winner, Cause of Causes, returns to defend his crown and is a warm favourite. He is likely to be using this as a stepping stone to the Grand National and may not be as cherry ripe as last season.

His stablemate, Tiger Roll, twice a Festival winner, looks to have been laid out specifically for this race and the hint should be taken.

In all likelihood, Davy Russell will ride and he has a good record around the course. Josies Orders and Auvergnat are others to consider from the Enda Bolger team.

Selection: Tiger Rolls
Outsider: Auvergnat

Fred Winter
This race is hard to sort out as the contenders are improving and plenty of luck in running is needed. Act of Valour has performed well against the top Juveniles. He will improve for the better ground and will be close.

The top stables have some chances too with Style De Garde, Nube Negra and Oistrakh Le Noir ones to consider.

Selection: Act of Valour
Outsider: Style De Garde

Champion Bumper
For once, there is no superstar Bumper horse being hyped. Willie Mullins has the strongest Irish contenders with Blackbow and Hollographic who both impressed in their wins. Rhinestone is the other strong Irish contender.
For the home team Didtheyleaveuoutto has been an impressive winner twice for Nick Gifford and is the pundits tip. Acey Milan beat a strong field well at Newbury and must have a chance too.

Selection: Hollowgraphic
Outsider: Acey Milan

See next week’s edition for John Doyle’s picks for Days three and four of the Festival, including who he thinks will win the Gold Cup.

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