With the Festival almost upon us again for another year, I am going to attempt to blog about all 27 races at this year’s Festival even with a much busier schedule to contend with. All prices are from Paddy Power as they are the main bookmaker I use.
Skybet Supreme Novice Hurdle
The meeting begins with the Supreme with the battle commencing immediately with principal British hope Irving taking on Vautour who leads a strong Willie Mullins trio across the Irish Sea. With the market changing over the last week with rumours surrounding Vautour, Irving is now as short as 2/1 favourite with him being unbeaten in four starts over hurdles which include two Graded successes at Ascot and Kempton. Given the nickname ‘Concorde’ by his rider Nick Schofield, he has lived up to that with his burst of speed being his most potent weapon. Whilst he has been winning his races easily, you can question to an extent what he has been beating with only Splash Of Ginge really going on to do anything decent with him winning the Betfair Hurdle and his jumping at times can be ponderous, in particular at Kempton where he was awkward at the last. There is no doubt that he has a serious engine but his jumping would be the main concern and for that, I am willing to take him on.
Vautour is another who comes into the race unbeaten this season having claimed the scalp of The Tullow Tank in the Deloitte at Leopardstown last month under a masterclass ride from Ruby Walsh. A horse with plenty of scope, he will definitely make a smashing chaser in time and is bred to get much further than the minimum two miles but he just doesn’t appeal to me for this race, especially with his price of 3/1.
Mullins also has Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido for the race who are both unbeaten over hurdles. Wicklow Brave was let down by his jumping last time but had enough class to beat Lieutenant Colonel who goes for the Neptune pretty convincingly however his jumping would be my major cause for concern although in saying that, a faster pace will definitely help. Valseur Lido on the other hand is an excellent jumper of his hurdles and looked to ooze class when winning at Navan just before Christmas and could be the one of the Mullins trio but I would be concerned about his lack of experience however he looks a horse to remain on the right side of once going novice chasing.
Josses Hill is Nicky Henderson’s main hope for the race and ran a really good race in the Tolworth behind stablemate Royal Boy however the race itself was a muddling affair with The Liquidator disappointing and considering Kempton is a speed track, it was surprising to see Royal Boy win as he would look to appreciate more of a stamina test. He would have a good chance on better ground but he isn’t my idea of the winner.
Having mentioned THE LIQUIDATOR and he was disappointing in the Tolworth, you can forgive one bad run as before that he looked a very promising contender for this race. He probably put up the best English novice performance when taking apart Sea Lord, a 150 rated hurdler over course and distance in the Supreme Trial with him showing the perfect blend of speed and stamina although he was given an unnecessary hard time by Tom Scudamore. If he comes back in that form then he will go close and could look overpriced.
Another of interest is WILDE BLUE YONDER who should be three from three however two final flight falls are on his form sheet. On what he has shown so far, his battling qualities are definitely assured and although he has fallen twice, his ability is still unknown which makes him still an exciting prospect for connections. Another positive is that he can have a toe into the race and have horses in front of him when jumping the last which should help as both times he has fallen, he has seen daylight which suggests a lack of concentration but a properly run race should suit perfectly.
The Liquidator – 18/1
Wilde Blue Yonder – 20/1
Racing Post Arkle Trophy
Whilst this race looks less one dimensional unlike the last two seasons, there could potentially be a disappointing turnout with a small field. The race for me revolves around the fitness and condition of CHAMPAGNE FEVER who has a 100% strike rate at the Festival with two wins in the Champion Bumper and last season’s Supreme. His debut win over fences was highly professional at Punchestown before his third behind Defy Logic at Leopardstown where he jumped beautifully until making a bad mistake two out. It has to be concerning that he hasn’t been seen since but he is the only horse that I can see winning the race before going onto Gold Cup glory in 2015. His high cruising speed mixed with his strong stamina should be enough to see him win this however the main worry is the last horse to make all to win this was Anaglog’s Daughter back in 1980.
The main danger would be Trifolium who jumped really well when beating Champagne Fever’s stablemate Felix Yonger in the Irish Arkle by nine lengths on heavy ground. Although he ran well in the 2012 Supreme on better ground behind Cinders And Ashes, the softer the ground is the better his chance would be especially based on his run behind Felix Yonger at Navan earlier in the season on better ground.
Dodging Bullets has course and distance form having won the November Novice Chase back in November beating Raya Star and Ted Veale. He then beat Grandouet in the Wayward Lad at Kempton before posting his best effort on awful ground in the Betfair Cash Out Chase (The Game Spirit) at Racecourse Newbury behind Module. The main concern for him is whether he can maintain his form especially as it tailed off towards the end of last season with him bursting blood vessels. His stable mate Hinterland will have the most experience in the field with him being a second season novice. Although he is a Grade One winner over fences when beating Grandouet back in the Henry VIII before Christmas, his jumping isn’t foot perfect at the best of times however the end to end gallop will surely play to his strengths.
Former Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby becomes the first horse to contest the Arkle since Celtic Shot back in 1990. He is unbeaten over fences however the form of his races remains questionable having beaten a 98 rated mare in Lindsay’s Dream at Plumpton and the enigma that is Mr Mole at Doncaster. His jumping hasn’t been spectacular and he has made mistakes in what were effectively match races so he will have to be on his A-game. On his hurdles rating, he should be winning this but at the age of 9 and with the doubts just mentioned, he is easily opposable.
Valdez is certainly an interesting runner for Alan King as he also had the option of bringing Balder Succes here. Both horses have form tied in with Fox Appeal and God’s Own however I feel Balder Succes is probably the better of the pair especially as he beat both over a distance that would suit both better. Valdez goes into this with a good chance based on his Lightning win at Doncaster which showed the return of King’s stable. Before that, he looked very good when winning a novice handicap on Hennessy day at Newbury and he remains an exciting prospect as unlike his hurdling days, he has learnt to settle which will help his chances enormously.
Simon Munir could go double handed with another King horse in Raya Star and Nicky Henderson’s sole representative Grandouet. Raya Star could potentially be overpriced based on form with Dodging Bullets having finished close to him on two occasions this season.
Grandouet has his lovers (Luke!) and haters (Mikey!). Overall this season his jumping has been mostly good especially at Sandown when he was second to Hinterland. Kempton was a run to forget as he wants something to aim at and he had to make his own running. His jumping that day did get worse as the race went on and he could be a threat here although having heard mixed comments about his schooling lately, it will take a far more confident person than myself to back him. The main concern would be whether his jumping can stand the test but he will love the end to end gallop on better ground.
Champagne Fever – 11/4
Stan James Champion Hurdle
This could potentially be the jumps race of the decade and I cannot wait for 3:20pm next Tuesday. Whatever people’s opinions of the main contenders, everyone can agree that we are in for a fantastic renewal.
When beginning to analyse this race, you have to start with the nineteen times Grade One winner Hurricane Fly. You can question what horses he has been beating in his native Ireland over the years but he is a superb racehorse and the way he has been handled by Willie Mullins is nothing short of brilliant. To get a horse to win a couple of Grade Ones is a fantastic achievement however to train one that can win nineteen with that breaking the previous record is extraordinary. Whilst this is probably the strongest Grade One he will have contested, he merits the utmost respect as a dual Champion Hurdle winner even though he has never shown his best form at Cheltenham. If he is able to become the sixth triple winner joining Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq then his legacy will be sealed and hopefully he will be recognised as the golden hurdler of his time.
This season has been business as usual for him. His return to action did have many (including myself) doubting whether he was his former self with a workmanlike success at Punchestown beating three stable mates who are rated much lower over hurdles than him. The price offered of 13/2 now looks huge based on his last two starts at Punchestown where he has beaten two very creditable contenders in Our Conor and Jezki. Of those wins, the second one was most impressive as he out battled Our Conor after being outjumped at the last and having had an issue with a stone bruise. Whilst I believe he has three major contenders, whatever the result he will put up a huge fight whether he wins or loses.
The English challenge is spearheaded by The New One and My Tent Or Yours with both having excellent chances to wrestle the prize back to England. The New One could be considered to be the perfect type for a Champion Hurdle. His blend of speed and stamina is a potent mix and with his course record at Cheltenham, there are no worries on that account. His win in the Neptune last season has been questioned but that particular race was ran to suit as they went no gallop and Sam Twiston-Davies used his speed to perfection against the likes of Rule The World and Pont Alexandre, both strong stayers. Last season ended with a fine run behind Zarkandar in the Aintree Hurdle with him losing nothing in defeat.
He began this campaign with a bloodless success against 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby at Kempton where his turn of foot was instant and very impressive. He then reversed Aintree Hurdle form with Zarkandar who to be fair probably finds two miles on the sharp side for him, even on Cheltenham’s New Course. Although he won at Kempton earlier in the season, the Christmas Hurdle wasn’t exactly ran to suit but he did look to get My Tent Or Yours into a little bit of trouble between the last two flights before crashing through the last. However, I am not going to suggest that mistake gifted the race to My Tent Or Yours as he battled all the way to the line and proved me wrong on what I believed after last year’s Supreme. The only issue that puts me off siding with The New One in this race is that he can make a mistake and in a race like this it could set him back a few lengths which is less than ideal with horses that have a similar turn of foot.
My Tent Or Yours and The New One have both met twice with the score line between them one all as The New One beat him in the Aintree Champion Bumper back in 2012. A highly impressive winner of last season’s Betfair Hurdle where he looked thrown in even off a mark of 149, he went to Cheltenham with a big reputation but was beaten fair and square by Champagne Fever in the Supreme and looked a horse that shied away from a battle before ending his season with an easy win at Aintree.
This season began with a victory in the Fighting Fifth however his main rival Melodic Rendezvous disappointed through a muscle injury but he did it comfortably enough. The Christmas Hurdle was the first time that he became a genuine Champion Hurdle contender in my eyes as he proved those that doubted his battling qualities wrong with a gutsy performance to beat The New One. His most recent start in a Jumpers Bumper proved his wellbeing and underlined his brilliant turn of foot. Whilst he’s a very good horse and a major threat, I have two small concerns. One was whether he acted around Cheltenham last season with his record on flat tracks being strong and this foot problem announced yesterday would have to be a worry for his chances.
My Tent Or Yours’ owner JP McManus has a second dart to throw at the Champion Hurdle board in Jezki however I don’t believe he is quite good enough to win this and hasn’t shown to me that he could reverse form with Hurricane Fly and Our Conor based on the last run at Leopardstown which was disappointing.
This brings me to my idea of the Champion Hurdle winner which is of course OUR CONOR. Although the main argument against him is that he is only five, looking back through the race’s history shows that some exceptional five year olds have won it. These include triple winners Sir Ken, Persian War and See You Then plus a dual winner in Night Nurse and the most recent being Katchit back in 2008. Our Conor is bidding to follow in the hoofprints of Katchit as they won their respective Triumph Hurdles in devastating style with them both probably being the standout performances of this century. Whilst Katchit was a gutsy little terrier who would put his head down in a battle and fight to the death, Our Conor is a classier type who travels strongly through his races and although there isn’t a front runner in the race, they will still go a good gallop which will benefit him enormously.
Whilst he has been beaten in all three starts this season, that wouldn’t worry me at all. Dessie Hughes is aiming for one day in March and knows how to do it, especially when he has been associated with the likes of Monksfield and Hardy Eustace. His two runs behind Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown have shown plenty of promise and that he has improved upon what he did last season plus not many horses have outjumped a nineteen times Grade One winner at the final flight at the top level.
For a more sentimental reason, it would be great if he were to win as for this season, owner Barry Connell is donating all of the horse’s winnings to the JT McNamara which is a wonderful act of kindness towards a true legend of the sport who as we know sadly was paralysed at last year’s meeting. Plus with the sporting decision to withdraw The Tullow Tank from the Festival and the loss of Minsk recently, he sure deserves a change in luck and this would be perfect for him.
At a longer price as well, MELODIC RENDEDVOUS is the unknown quantity. Forgiven for a lacklustre effort in the Fighting Fifth where things clearly weren’t right, he bounced back to win the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock in excellent style on heavy ground before beating the reliable yardstick in Zarkandar in the Kingwell at Wincanton on barely raceable ground. That day he looked in serious trouble turning into the straight but his class and speed saw him through that race with trainer Jeremy Scott suggesting after all that better ground could see him at his best. Whilst it’s unlikely that very soft ground will come up, if it did he would be one of very few horses that can handle it and have a burst of acceleration in it but even on better ground he would be a worry to the main protagonists. It would be fantastic if he could win especially for a smaller stable and put his trainer on the map as being able to prepare a good horse for a race like this. One thing I will freely admit, the prices before Haydock were ludicrous and I stupidly didn’t bite the dangling carrot as going into the Festival with an ante-post bet with a horse over double his current odds would have been a good feeling.
Our Conor – 7/1 (Ante-Post) 5/1 (In a range of multiples)
Melodic Rendezvous – 20/1 E/W