The opening day at the Cheltenham Festival can go the way of the punters and the top two in the market for top trainer at the meeting, Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, can dominate.
Mullins can take the day’s feature, the Champion Hurdle, with 2011 winner Hurricane Fly (3:20) who bids to become the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain his crown, having finished just third to Rocky On Ruby last year.
The nine-year-old wasn’t at his best last season, but has enjoyed a much smoother preparation this time around and, with the soft ground in his favour, he is very much the one to beat under Ruby Walsh.
Mullins and Walsh should also take the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle for a remarkable fifth year in a row with the top-class Quevega (4:40) who arrives here without a run under her belt for the fourth successive season.
The daughter of Robin Des Champs remains in a different league against her own sex and, though I would have loved to have seen her take her chance in the World Hurdle this year, I can understand connections wanting to complete the nap hand here. She was easy to back last night and was trading at a best price 4/6 with Hills and Coral.
At the same price Simonsig (2:05) should be difficult to beat in the Arkle, as he will relish the soft ground, whereas main market rival Overturn could be inconvenienced by the prevailing conditions.
The grey, who impressively took the Neptune here last year, is two from two over fences and, while it isn’t ideal that we haven’t seen him since Christmas, Nicky Henderson is a past master at getting one ready for the Festival on the Lambourn gallops.
His lack of experience doesn’t seem to worry Barry Geraghty and it should be remembered that the seven-year-old, who would have been good enough to contest the Champion Hurdle this year in my opinion, ran in three point-to-points in Ireland, winning two.
Henderson can also take the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with My Tent Or Yours (1:30) who is already rated 162, after his romp in the Betfair Hurdle.
Ground worse than soft would be a concern, but it was easy enough at Newbury last time and a reproduction of that form would win most Supremes.
Layers will point to the likes of Amoretto Rose, Binocular, Spirit Son, Sprinter Sacre and Darlan who have been beaten in this for the stable in recent seasons and also the short price reversals of Cue Card, Dunguib, Cousin Vinny et al, but My Tent Or Yours has more substance to his form and will take plenty of beating.
Also in his favour is the fact that only 12 go to post, which is unusual for the opening race of the Festival, and he should be backed at 2/1 (hopefully there will be a bit of 9/4 or even 5/2 on offer this morning).
This looks a cracker, however, and it could easily be a trial for next year’s Champion Hurdle, with Jezki arriving here with rock-solid form to his name in Ireland. But, I’m a huge fan of Un Atout who certainly falls in to the ‘could be anything’ category after three wide-margin short-price successes and he looks the each-way alternative.
With Hills remarkably still offering ¼ odds to 5 places I wouldn’t put anyone off (don’t often suggest two horses in the same race, certainly at these odds) having an each-way ‘saver’ on him.
It certainly looks as though it could be first blood to the punters on day one, but the handicaps will give the bookmakers the chance to get some back, with the three handicap chases looking really competitive.
If you’re looking for a horse at big odds to take a chance this afternoon then have a small each-way interest on Tour Des Champs (2:40) in the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase at 28/1 with Bet Victor (who are paying 5 places).
There is a concern about the Nigel Twiston-Davies yard (given that three horses have been forced to miss the Festival) and his jumping is far from fluent, but six-year-old has some decent form to his name on soft ground and could easily go well if getting in to a rhythm.
On debut he beat the smart Shoegazer and he’s also won a Ludlow handicap and a small novice chase on heavy ground at Ffos Las. On his last start, in the Grade 2 Renoldstown at Ascot, he was upside Rocky Creek and Houblon Des Obeaux when ploughing through the fourth last. He kept on again to finish 11 lengths off the runner-up, who goes in the RSA Chase tomorrow, and if he can iron out his jumping he could certainly outrun those odds.
1:30 Cheltenham Festival: My Tent Or Yours (5/2 Paddy Power)
2:05 Cheltenham Festival: Simonsig (4/6 Paddy Power)
2:40 Cheltenham Festival: Tour Des Champs (e/w 28/1 Bet Victor)
3:20 Cheltenham Festival: Hurricane Fly (9/4 Skybet)
4:40 Cheltenham Festival: Quevega (4/6 Coral)
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Last Year’s Book Results – Leading Prospects:
- SPRINTER SACRE – Unbeaten – winner at Aintree & Cheltenham
- SIMONSIG – Winner at Aintree & Cheltenham
- CINDERS AND ASHES – 10/1 winner of Supreme Novices Hurdle
- BOBS WORTH – 9/2 winner of the RSA Chase
- MENORAH & SILVINIACO CONTI – Both Aintree Winners
- SIR DES CHAMPS – Unbeaten inc 3/1 Jewson Cheltenham Winner
- FINGAL BAY – Won 4 times inc Challow Hurdle
- RAYA STAR – 10/3 winner at Wetherby, 12/1 Ladbroke Hurdle winner, 15/2 Scottish Champion Hurdle winner
- AMBION WOOD – 14/1 EBF Final Sandown winner
- CHAMPION COURT – 6/1 G2 Dipper Novices Chase winner
- PALACE JESTER – 14/1 winner at FFos Las
- SWINCOMBE FLAME – Hat-trick winner inc Lanzarote Hurdle at 9/2
- TEAFOR THREE – 5/1 NH Cheltenham Chase winner (Manifesto Novices’ Chase)