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Cheltenham Festival: Day One

The finest four days of jumps racing are here but the main concern in the build-up has been with Mother Nature making the ground testing.

Day one looks set to have ‘Heavy’ in some part of the going description with the latest information from Simon Claisse being ‘Heavy, Soft in Places’.

Here is a look at the opening day of racing.

13:30 – Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

The tapes go back and the Cheltenham roar will be heard but will it be a winning start for Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins?

That pair combine with Getabird who has done nothing wrong under rules and won’t mind the conditions. The six-year-old is 2-2 over hurdles and won over 2m4f at Punchestown in December when staying on well, so that stamina on this testing ground will be a positive.

His win in the Moscow Flyer last time was a stand out performance given the way he cantered round and then quickened away from Mengli Khan after the last.

It was a race where he was able to dominate from the front and got a nice sight of his hurdles, which he jumped beautifully throughout. He’s at the front of the market with connections having won this three times in the last five years plus his form looks good so far.

The next two in the betting are Kalashnikov and Summerville Boy, who have form against each other when the latter came out on top in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on tacky ground.

He was settled in rear that day and made steady progress through the field before staying on despite a bit of wandering. Of course, Kalashnikov coming out and winning the Betfair Hurdle compliments that form too.

Tom George’s charge has had two previous runs at Cheltenham too when second to Slate House and third to Western Ryder, so sometimes that experience of dealing with the undulations of the track can help and he did run through the line strongly at Sandown.

Kalashnikov was unbeaten until the Tolworth Hurdle and trainer Amy Murphy believes the ground had a part to play that day because it didn’t blunt him when winning at Newbury.

This five-year-old is going to make a better chaser but hasn’t done much wrong over hurdles. He scythed through the worsening conditions and he looks to have the gears to contest in this field given he is the highest rated in the line-up.

Kim Bailey’s First Flow won the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novice’s Hurdle at Haydock in January in easy fashion when travelling through that race without any trouble.

The rain that continues to fall will definitely be in his favour and given two of his three hurdles wins have come on heavy ground then he is a candidate that should be high on the shortlist.

Despite winning well so far, there hasn’t been much strength to his form, yet he’s made a positive impression, especially with how fluently he jumps and that could be important here.

This son of Primary is one that could be overpriced given he’ll relish the conditions and does look likely to stay further.

I’m giving a chance to Paloma Blue who hasn’t done much wrong in his races so far and can be one at a price to get involved at the finish for Henry de Bromhead.

He’s a free-going sort, so the strong gallop should help settle him down and if he does then we could see the best of him because he looks to have more to offer.

At Leopardstown in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle he was too free early on, so Davy Russell sent him to the front where he and Duc Des Genievres set the pace and if prominent here then that is usually a positive with how this race unfolds.

I like the way he takes his hurdles and the way he travelled throughout that race, especially when Samcro loomed up on his quarters.

Samcro had the gears to kick on whereas Paloma Blue was found wanting, maybe due to his early exertions of running free but it was another step forward and he looks to be one on the upgrade.

Of the rest then I’d give a squeak to course winner Western Ryder, who was fifth in last year’s Champion Bumper. He is one that is likely to handle the conditions having got off the mark over hurdles on heavy ground at Chepstow.

He’s a big strapping horse, who was second over 2m3f at Huntingdon in the Listed Sidney Banks last time and may have challenged Vindication but for an error at the last. He should see out this trip strongly with conditions to suit, so he is one on the shortlist.

The initial thinking was that he’d be heading to the Ballymore, over further, so the fact connections have decided to come here makes you think that bit stamina on the testing ground could come into effect.

As ever look out for offers and enhanced play terms for this race.

Paloma Blue – 16/1

14:10 – Arkle Novices’ Chase

Just five are set to line-up this year but it looks a competitive heat with the likes of Footpad, Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados all contesting.

That trio looks to be the ones to focus upon with Footpad being unbeaten since switching to the larger obstacles and being a joy to watch so far.

He hasn’t been under much pressure so far with him being too good for his rivals but he is a smart jumper where he is quick and accurate.

Willie Mullins’ charge has been third in the Triumph Hurdle and fourth in last year’s Champion Hurdle but in the latter, he didn’t find much coming home and was joined on the line by The New One, so there are some reservations with him handling the Cheltenham track.

The other concern would be him not getting his own way out in front, so it’ll be interesting to see if that lights him up or he sulks and spits the dummy out.

Saint Calvados entered the picture when blitzing his rivals in the Grade 2 Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick last month. That took him to 3-3 since joining Harry Whittington and this French import is one who attacks the fences, jumping big and bold.

One of the trends in this race is against him with only one five-year-old winning this race since 2000 and that was Voy Por Ustedes for Alan King back in 2006.

However, he’s done little wrong so far and he looks to hold a strong chance now the rain has continued to come. This looks to be the trainers chance to register his first Festival winner and can certainly make his presence felt.

Petit Mouchoir was beaten by five lengths when behind Footpad in the Irish Arkle but that was put down to him needing the run, so if that has put him spot on for this he is a player.

He’s another pace angle into this race, so I doubt there will be no hiding places with the front three in the market all jostling to be at the front when the tape goes back.

The grey son of Al Namix is liable to a poor jump in part of his race and that could knock the stuffing out of his claims here. On hurdles form, he has a strong chance after holding Footpad on a couple of occasions, including when finishing third in the Champion Hurdle.

Brain Power could be the fly in the ointment having had a wind operation since last seen and we know Nicky Henderson can get one right for the big day but he’s failed to complete on his last two with an unseat and a fall.

If the ground is heavy as expected then that could blunt his chance and it may even throw his participation in doubt.

Saint Calvados – 3/1

14:50 – Ultima Handicap Chase

The first of the handicaps and in recent years those horses rated 145+ have gone well in this race with the last five winners all at that level. If you follow that way of thinking then it’d leave you with ten, including Gold Present but Nicky Henderson’s charge, who has won his last two, would have to be doubtful on testing ground.

Coo Star Sivola has Festival form having finished third in the Fred Winter and fourth in the Martin Pipe. There was only one race this six-year-old was entered in and that shows that Nick Williams has had this lined up for a while now, so this son of Assessor should be primed for it.

He bolted up when stepped up to three miles at Exeter last time and there could be plenty more to come over this distance but he hasn’t won on heavy ground. He was fourth here on similar ground over 2m5f when beaten by 20 lengths, so the ground could be an issue but there is definitely scope for him off a mark of 142.

Vintage Clouds fell in this last year when looking like he was mounting a challenge. He’s been in good form this season with his fourth in the Welsh National and second in the Grade 2 Towton at Wetherby last time.

The rain that has arrived is likely to aid his chances and if running to his recent form then he looks to hold solid claims, especially if his jumping holds.

Stablemate Wakanda is a bit of a favourite of mine and he won the Sky Bet Chase in a head-bobber last time when coming through late to beat Warriors Tale by a head.

He is a genuine type that will give his all and is a reliable jumper but he may have to find more in this sort of contest.

Ramses De Teillee is one that represents David Pipe, who has won this three times in the last ten years, including the last two with Un Temps Pour Tout.

He’s been running consistently over this trip and further this season with most of those efforts coming on heavy ground. He looks a thorough stayer and has been dropped 3lb for being beaten by 13 lengths at Exeter last time.

Given we know David Pipe has been targeting this race of late then this six-year-old is likely to enter the mix, especially with him likely to handle the track and conditions.

Yala Enki won the Grand National Trial at Haydock last time and does enjoy deep ground, so he is a player.

I’m not one for Haydock form with it usually being exaggerated by the ground and not always withstanding. If he is able to replicate that run here off a 6lb higher then he can go close given his stamina reserves.

Vicente is a two-time Scottish National winner but he unseated in the Welsh National at Chepstow last time, so he has proved to tick the stamina box.

He rarely tackles heavy ground but does have some form on it when second in a Novice Hurdle at Taunton but that was all the way back in 2014.

The Paul Nicholls inmate ran well here in November when second by a neck here in the Grade 3 Bet Victor Handicap Chase plus he won a Novice Chase here when beating two-time Ultima winner Un Temps Pour Tout back in 2015.

This gelding by Dom Alco has course form and stays all day, so for me is one that has to enter the equation.

Cogry was behind Vicente in last year’s Scottish National but he likes it around here with his last two wins coming here at Cheltenham.

We can arguably put a line through his run at Warwick last time because it came over the inadequate 2m4f trip. He stayed on well but never challenged the front two.

The only concern from that run was his lack of fluency but he’ll have been schooled since and Nigel Twiston-Davies won’t have left a stone unturned in making sure he is in top form arriving here.

He does have solid form on heavy ground with form figures reading 3112P2, so that shouldn’t really be too much of an issue.

You can make a strong argument for a number of these but narrowing it down to two has been tricky. Of those high on my shortlist, I’m leaving Vicente out despite his fine run here in November.

Vintage Clouds – 8/1
Cogry – 16/1 

15:30 – Champion Hurdle

The first championship race of the week and it’s one where current champion Buveur D’Air is expected to defend his crown.

The seven-year-old has only lost once over hurdles in his career and after a perfect preparation with wins in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, Christmas Hurdle at Kempton before sauntering round Sandown, which should have put him spot on for this.

Everything seems to have gone well for him and he looks sets to win once again but his price is on the short side.

This race looks to be one to use the w/o Buveur D’Air with a number of potential players in the mix for a place.

2015 winner Faugheen has had his struggles of late and he was pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown won by Mick Jazz.

That was followed up by a much better effort when beaten by leading Stayers Hurdle candidate Supasundae and that seemed to get him back on track for this.

Willie Mullins isn’t one to usually reach for headgear but he’s put the cheekpieces on this ten-year-old plus Ruby Walsh returns to the saddle having missed his last three starts due to injury.

With question marks remaining over his disappointing Christmas effort plus his failure to find his gear change last time mean I’m willing to swerve him.

I’m quite interested in stablemate Yorkhill who reverts back to hurdles after a difficult and troubled time this season.

He’s been well-beaten in both starts this campaign and that has somewhat forced Mullins’ hand to bring him back to see if they can rekindle his enthusiasm for the game.

There is no doubting that the Graham Wylie owned runner has talent given his previous Festival form having won the 2016 Neptune and JLT last year but it is his quirky nature that may put people off.

If David Mullins can get him interested in racing and then can cajole him along then we’ve seen he has the necessary tools to go close in a race of this nature.

Elgin has been supplemented for this race by connections after winning the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last time out and Alan King has continually talked this six-year-old up.

He’ll handle the ground and won the Greatwood Hurdle here in November when gamely sticking to the task to get the better of Misterton but I feel he lacks the gears to deal with some of his rivals.

My Tent Or Yours has finished second three times in this race, including last year, so has the credentials to run another big race.

He earned his first success at Cheltenham back in December when landing the International Hurdle when beating a number of these like Melon and Ch’Tibello.

Only two 11-year-old’s have won the Champion Hurdle in its rich history, so it’s a tough ask for him but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hitting the frame and picking up some minor money in the process.

Yorkhill w/o Buveur D’Air – 6/1

16:10 – Mares’ Hurdle

Another warm order of today will be Apple’s Jade after her success in this last year as Gordon Elliott stole the dominance of this race from Willie Mullins.

She has won all three starts this season and she looks to hold all the aces once more after running on strongly to beat Supasundae in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown in December.

The six-year-old jumps smoothly and quickens well plus she has undoubted guts, as she showed when battling up the hill last year. There looks little going against her, so she holds the right place in the market.

The well-touted Benie Des Dieux hasn’t put a foot wrong since joining the Willie Mullins yard where she is 3-3 but all coming over the larger obstacles.

Her record in France over hurdles was 2-6, so she’s proved to be better over fences so far. If able to translate her form over timber then she could be a key player.

There is no doubt that La Bague Au Roi could upset the applecart and this daughter of Doctor Dino looks to be well suited to this test.

She has progressed throughout winter and looked as good as ever at Ascot when putting in a bloodless performance to win by 16 lengths. She has a high cruising speed and her jumping is effortless, so she could be one to serve it up to the favourite.

Jer’s Girl has been behind both Apple’s Jade and La Bague Au Roi this season and needs to find a bit more to turn the tables.

She came to grief three from home last year and this 2m4f trip does look to be ideal for her, so was one that could hit the frame.

La Bague Au Roi each-way – 13/2

16:50 – National Hunt Challenge Cup

The four-miler looks a tough contest and it is likely to be more of a slog in the testing conditions.

Ms Parfois has been on the upgrade so far and could mount a strong challenge under Will Biddick. The mare seemingly stays well and could have plenty more to offer stepping up in trip.

The Anthony Honeyball time has had a difficult time after the loss Fountains Windfall but this seven-year-old looks well weighted to go close receiving weight from her rivals.

Gordon Elliott holds a strong hand with both Jury Duty and Mossback and the Count Meath handler has won this race twice in the last three years.

Jury Duty has some strong form in graded chases and has top amateur jockey Jamie Codd in the saddle. Gordon Elliott even sat on him when he arrived at Cheltenham when stretching out and getting a look at the course.

His form looks good having won a Grade 2 and gone close in a Grade 1. He ticks a few of the trends boxes and confidence is high surrounding his chances.

Stablemate Mossback can’t be discounted with the way he shapes in his races suggesting he is one that could see out this trip. He was a good second at Navan last time when staying on well to only go down by half a length.

That will have helped his confidence too having fallen at Naas in January. He looks one in the progressive mould so may have a bit more to offer and Lisa O’Neill is a useful addition in the saddle.

No Comment has only had one start over fences and that came in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles when not disgraced but there were a couple of hairy moments and this is a race where I feel you need a bit more experience than that.

Sizing Tennessee has plenty of form around here having won here in December then finishing second and third in contests in January. He is on high on the shortlist given his jumping is improving and he is a strong type, so should have plenty to offer.

The ten-year-old beat Duel At Dawn here in December but Alex Hales’ charge has been a model of consistency. When they met around here in December he was giving Sizing Tennessee 5lb in weight, so now off level weights could push him close.

The son of Presenting has only had four chase starts and despite Ms Parfois getting the better of him at Warwick he looks one to be a stout stayer, so I’d have him on side in this race, which will be a gruelling test.

Jury Duty – 6/1
Duel At Dawn – 18/1 

17:30 – Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase

I’m keen on De Plotting Shed here and it could crown a very good day for Gordon Elliott.

A few have argued that the eight-year-old has looked tripless due to his style of racing and his finishing effort but this trip could be the one given how he’s been shaping in his last two races at around the 2m trip.

Stepping him up to 2m4f looks to be the right decision for this bold jumping sort given he has some fair form over hurdles this trip and further. He was a solid type over hurdles when rated 150, so he’s 7lb lower over fences, so that could prove he has something in hand.

He will look to dispute the lead but with there being three or four others that can take those duties then it may be wise for Davy Russell to switch him off in-behind those leaders.

Mister Whitaker holds strong claims on the back of his win over 2m5f here in January and he looked to win with something to spare, so the 6lb he’s been put up by the handicapper may not stop him just yet.

He looks to have stamina on his side and they should go a decent gallop allowing him to settle towards the rear. A fluent jumper cannot be discounted and is likely to make his presence felt.

Testify and Rather Be are two of the likely types to go forward early on but I’d have stamina concerns about the latter in a field of this nature. However, Testify is a perfect 3-3 over fences and that includes a Grade 2 Novices’ Chase at Haydock. He’s done all he can in his races but he’s not one that has won many big field races.

Barney Dwan has won his last two races over this trip and 3m but he is one that can throw the odd poor jump into the mix and in this sort of race that is the concern.

He was second here in the Pertemps Final off this mark, so he looks fairly well treated but the majority of his best form has come on better ground, so that would be a question mark for me.

Le Rocher should enjoy the deep ground with his three most recent runs coming on heavy ground, so this French import has that box covered.

He may have notched another win if he hadn’t got the second last all wrong but that saw two more inexperienced rivals over fences get the better of him. Like Testify, we may not have seen the best of him yet due to the small field races he’s been contesting but off a mark of 144 could have something more to give.

The one to take a flyer with in this race looks to be Demi Sang. He’s only had two starts for Willie Mullins with his most recent being pitched into the Irish Arkle, so connections regard him highly.

On both starts, he has suggested that a step up in trip would suffice and when winning at Naas he ran through the line strongly. He has plenty of French form on very soft ground, so I wouldn’t expect that to inconvenience him.

He’s only a five-year-old, so will continue to improve and if he does that for stepping up in trip then a mark of 145 might underestimate him and it’s particularly interesting given Barry Geraghty has chosen to ride him.

De Plotting Shed – 7/1
Demi Sang – 16/1

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