13:30 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
The Festival kicks off with a traditionally competitive renewal of the two-mile novice hurdling crown.
The market leader, Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, has yet to be tested in Graded company, but the visual impression gained from his maiden win at Newbury implied that he could be straight out of the top drawer, waiting until all the jumping was done to power clear on the run-in. A listed race at Huntingdon next time out was no test for him, and it’s impossible to know exactly where the ceiling of his ability lies.
Shiskin’s owner Joe Donnelly lets his big guns clash here, and at the prices, I fractionally prefer the less fancied of his duo, Asterion Forlonge.
Willie Mullins’ grey was thrown in to Grade 1 company at the Dublin Racing Festival less than a month after winning his hurdles debut and was impressive in drawing clear from the talented Easywork and I especially liked the way Asterion Forlonge put the race to bed in a number of strides rounding the home turn.
The Donnelly pair both look ideally suited to the test the Supreme provides, shaping like the usual stamina test provided by a strongly run two miles will play to their strengths- there’s no doubt in my mind that either horse would perform as well in the Ballymore, over five furlongs further.
I think the winner of this race will be carrying his colours.
Other Grade 1 novice hurdles this season have been won by Abacadabras and Fiddlerontheroof, who are the next two in the betting at 11/2 and 8/1 respectively.
Last season’s Champion Bumper fourth Abacadabras has only found Envoi Allen too good in his hurdling career so far and merits serious respect- he shapes like most like an out-and-out two miler of those at the head of the betting, and I don’t think he has been as detrimentally awkward this campaign as he was in his bumper days, whilst Fiddlerontheroof showed a nice turn of foot when taking the Tolworth, though I don’t think that was the strongest of renewals and I’d expect he’d need improvement to match Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge.
At a bigger price, Edwardstone, who beat Fiddlerontheroof earlier in the season, had his unbeaten record snatched by a brilliant Sam Twiston-Davies ride at Haydock in January, but is a solid type and it won’t be a huge surprise if he gives his supporters a good run for their money.
14:10 The Arkle
Is the key to this race held by the form of the Irish equivalent?
Notebook was nothing special in his novice hurdling season- pulled-up in the Ballymore at last year’s Festival- but has been the undisputed star of this division, gaining two Grade 1 successes so far since switching to fences and he looks to be one of the most solid favourites of the entire Festival.
Henry De Bromhead’s seven-year-old secured the first of those when claiming the highly-prized scalps of Fakir D’Oudairies and Laurina on St Stephen’s Day, before confirming himself as a top-class novice chaser when taking the Irish Arkle last time out.
His main market rival is the Irish Arkle runner-up, Cash Back, who was a similar level to Notebook over hurdles and like the favourite, has seemingly taken a huge step forward for fences.
He got to within three-quarters of a length of the favourite at Leopardstown last month and his supporters will be hoping the stiffer Cheltenham finish will bring Cash Back’s supposed superior stamina into play, but I’m not sure how much I buy into that theory- I thought Notebook was always holding Cash Back in Dublin, so even though I highly respect the Willie Mullins runner and would class him as the biggest danger to Notebook, I’m confident that the favourite will confirm the form of last time out and make it a hat-trick of top-level wins this season.
The British form appears to a notch below what we’ve seen in Ireland this season. Global Citizen was a tidy winner of the Wayward Lad at Kempton over Christmas, whilst that race’s fourth-placed horse Rouge Vif was hugely impressive in taking the Kingmaker at Warwick last month.
However, I’d say the strongest candidates from this side of the Irish Sea are Henry VIII victor Esprit Du Large and Brewin’upastorm, who has been off since winning twice at the beginning of the season.
I like Brewin’upastorm best of the home team, though I’m not entirely convinced that a trip this sharp will be his optimum.
14:50 Ultima Handicap
I fancy The Conditional, who broke his maiden over fences in a competitive handicap back here at the Open meeting and has since held his form well, finishing a brilliant second in the Ladbrokes Trophy and then a respectable fourth in the Classic Chase at Warwick.
The handicapper has been particularly lenient by dropping his mark by 3lb following his Warwick effort- he stopped fairly quickly over the extreme 3m5f, but was hampered at the second last and wasn’t shaping like a non-stayer until that point.
The track and trip both suit him perfectly, and given the improvement local trainer David Bridgwater has already been able to garner from him, he could still be a few pounds ahead of his mark.
Two-time Festival runner up Discorama is feared most, whilst better ground should see Mister Malarky in the fray. Kildisart was also eyecatching last time out, and it would be no surprise if he was back to his best in this contest.
15:30 Champion Hurdle
A messy year for the two-mile hurdling division looks to have led to the most open Champion Hurdle in recent memory. Buveur D’Air’s in his box, Saldier’s sidelined and Klassical Dream’s nightmare campaign has also ended with injury, so, with the Champion Hurdle line-up lacking almost all of the expected pre-season protagonists, this season’s renewal may not take as much winning as a usual Champion Hurdle. It could be the best opportunity any of these horses will have to take such a coveted crown.
Epatante produced the best performance seen in the division this season when running away with the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, and on that basis, is the right favourite for this. Only rated 137 at the beginning of the year, she made a mockery of that mark by bolting up in the Gerry Fielden, before tackling a battle-hardened and experienced group, including Silver Streak and Ballyandy at Kempton.
The Christmas Hurdle may not have been the most vintage of renewals, but the manner in which Epatante sprinted clear after the last was indicative of a horse on a sharp curve of improvement, something which this division doesn’t look to have too many of.
Her hugely underwhelming effort at last season’s Festival- only ninth in the Dawn Run when sent off 15/8f- is a concern for some, but she’s clearly a different proposition this time around is merits her place at the head of the betting.
Her stablemate Pentland Hills took the Triumph last season, it has to be a worry that Pentland Hills has shaped like the best horse on both of his starts this season, but remains winless. His weakness at the finish didn’t appear to be a trait in his juvenile campaign, and he has since had his palate cauterised to try and help alleviate this flaw, but I find it hard to make a case for a horse who hasn’t properly seen a race out this season.
The Champion Hurdle field has looked rife for something to come from left field and establish themselves as a leading contender for this, and I think one emerged last month in the shape of Cilaos Emery.
A Grade 1 winning novice hurdler back in 2017, he’d made a flawless start to his chasing career- scoring in open Grade 3 and Grade 2 company on his only second and third runs over the bigger obstacles. After getting no further than the first in the Dublin Chase, the Mullins camp evidently decided a switch back over hurdles was a route worth exploring, given the supposed lack of the strength amongst this contingent, and Cilaos Emery showed he retained his aptitude for the discipline when taking the Red Mills Hurdle last month.
That was a race he was always entitled to win, but he was a good enough hurdler in his youth to have been competitive in a race of this strength and I think his chasing form suggests he’s an improved animal nowadays. Buveur D’Air took advantage of a weak Champion Hurdle division to win this after starting the season over fences three years ago, and I think we could be seeing a similar story this time around.
Of the others, Sharjah, who has won three times at Grade 1 level over the past two seasons, would have a chance on a going day, though the fact that Mullins has supplemented Cilaos Emery rather than rely solely on him isn’t a glowing endorsement, whilst the likeable Supasundae is a bona-fide Grade 1 horse and even though this trip is short of his best, could also be in the mix if stepping forward from a satisfactory return in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
16:10 Mares’ Hurdle
Who would’ve thought that the Champion Hurdle wouldn’t be the strongest race on Champion Hurdle day?
This is a clash of two absolute heavyweights. Honeysuckle, reigning Irish Champion Hurdler, unbeaten in all eight of her career starts, takes on Willie Mullins’ wondermare Benie Des Dieux, who would also only have 1s next to her name for her current trainer, if not for her famous final flight exit in this event last season.
The market slightly prefers the more established Benie Des Dieux- the winner of this in 2017, she had the race at her mercy when falling at the last in defence of her title last season, deja vu of the same connections’ Annie Power’s fate in the 2015 running. Annie Power herself made amends for that blip when gaining compensation at the Festival a year later, and it’s hard to make a case against Benie Des Dieux doing the same thing.
Her French Champion Hurdle victory in May was the best performance of her career, never coming off the bridle to stylishly hand local superstar De Bon Coeur only the second defeat of her lifetime, whilst she was equally as imperious in the Galmoy on her only domestic start of this season, never having to get out of first gear to thrash her useful stablemate Penhill by 21 lengths.
Honeysuckle missed Cheltenham through injury last season, but notched her first Grade 1 success not long after at Punchestown and has added two more top-level victories to her CV this season, highly impressive in the Hatton’s Grace, and then in more workmanlike fashion when dropped back to two miles for the Irish Champion Hurdle. The manner of success that day seemingly convinced Henry De Bromhead not to divert away from her original target, and though he is correct in saying his mare looks more comfortable over two-and-a-half miles than she does over two, but in Benie Des Dieux, Honeysuckle will face a tougher rival than she would’ve done in the Champion Hurdle.
I think Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux are the best two horses on show on Day 1, and either would have huge chances if connections had decided for a tilt at one of the more traditional “Championship” races.
Several other mares also merit mentions; the tough Roksana was the beneficiary of Benie Des Dieux’s tumble last season, whilst the horse who finished a place behind her, the formerly headstrong Stormy Ireland, looks a more professional performer this season. The popular Northern mare Lady Buttons also adds substance to the race away from the big two, but the prize should be going either of their ways- and I’m leaning towards Benie Des Dieux regaining a crown that she should never really have lost in the first place.
16:50 Northern Trust Company Novices’ Chase
The answer here may be Gordon Elliott’s runner Galvin.
He was sixth in the Ballymore last season, and though winless in three starts over fences, shaped like the penny was beginning to drop when a staying-on second to Salsaretta in a tidy beginners’ chase at Punchestown in November- all those in behind have achieved a rating of 130 or above, so his mark of 142 looks fair and with prior Festival form, looks to be worth taking seriously.
The favourite Imperial Aura is solid, goes well at Cheltenham and merits his place at the head of the market, whilst Knight In Dubai is surely overpriced at 20-1.
17:30 National Hunt Chase
A new look to the season’s premier novice marathon event- no longer the four-miler, with two furlongs trimmed off the race distance, and new rules regarding qualification for the race will lead to a field lighter on numbers than previously usual.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to change tactics regarding how I approach this race in the past week, as Champagne Classic, who would’ve been my NAP of the Festival, now misses the event due to a season-ending injury.
The race had become a much classier affair in recent seasons, and that trend remains the same, with market leader Carefully Selected boasting form strong enough to have merited a crack at the RSA if connections had preferred that option.
I think there’s no doubt that he’s the most talented horse in this race, but whether this will play to his strengths as much as it will for others is up for question; his jumping has been mediocre over fences so far and has a fair amount of pace for a horse who is going to be asked to go almost four miles.
His raw ability might just be enough to see him home here, and without Champagne Classic and the RSA-bound Copperhead, the list of viable alternatives against the favourite doesn’t look to be particularly long.
The pick against him could be Richard Hobson’s thorough stayer Lord Du Mesnil– a winner on typically bad Haydock ground in both The Last Fling and the Tommy Whittle, he continued his fine form since being switched to extreme distances when runner-up to the lightly weighted Smooth Stepper in the Grand National Trial last time out.
Lord Du Mesnil can boast experience of gruelling, stamina-sapping contests and has more than held his own against more experienced chasers, though the obvious caveat is that he’s had a tough campaign this season, so whether those previous efforts have left a mark on him is a question he’ll have to answer.
If they haven’t, he’ll definitely be going forwards rather than backwards at the finish and is a fair e/w price to take on the favourite with.
Newtide, a fortunate winner of the Towton last time out, will stay all day and is another potential alternative.
DAY ONE TIPS
Benie Des Dieux
Lord Du Mesnil