As is the case in the weeks and months leading up to Christmas, countdowns begin to appear online, letting us know how many sleeps we have until the big day. Some people don’t hold the Festival in such high regard, but those are the kind of people I don’t want to know. There are 60 sleeps until the opening day of Cheltenham 2017!
Thistlecrack’s Gold Cup opponents may be dropping like pigs in the midst of a swine flu epidemic – but nonetheless excitement is bubbling towards fever pitch. Let’s cast our eyes over the major Cheltenham Festival races to find a few ante-post bets that might have us looking quite smug in just a couple of months’ time.
Supreme Novices Hurdle
The first race we come to is the Supreme Novice Hurdle, a 2 mile novice hurdle open to horses 4 years old or more. Over the last few years we have seen Willie Mullins dominate this race with horses such as Douvan, Vautour and Champagne Fever. Even last year, Min finished runner-up to the hot pot Arkle favourite of this year – Altior. These names show the calibre of horse it takes to win this race and I feel that the ante-post favourite this year, Moon Racer, is impossible to oppose. He won the Champion Bumper here in 2015 but was forced to miss the race last year when he would have gone off favourite. Instead, he went to Punchestown for their bumper – finishing a creditable second to the well touted Blow By Blow. He has come back this year and really impressed in his two hurdle wins – jump on the best odds of 6/1 with Bet365.
|Moon Racer (ew)||Supreme Novices Hurdle||6/1||Bet365|
Arkle Challenge Trophy
Next it’s the turn of the novice chasers, again over 2 miles, and this is being billed as one of the races of the Festival – with last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 1-2, Altior & Min, set to renew rivalry. Altior has demolished anything that has taken him on so far over fences and as a result is an extremely short priced favourite at odds of 5/4. But he hasn’t beaten very much and while we know how good he is based on his hurdle form, you would want to be committed under the watchful eye of Nurse Ratched if you are backing a novice chaser at that kind of price two months before the race. Meanwhile, Min has been going about his business quite nicely too, winning both his chase starts in Ireland as easily as he could and an argument could also be made that he’s beating a better standard of horse to Altior. The Altior fan club will rightly offer up last year’s Supreme Novices’ as exhibit A in the trial of Altior vs Min, but the Min camp, myself included, also have evidence to submit. Min didn’t jump well in the main last year and landed on the 3rd hurdle where he was lucky to stand up. It later transpired that he suffered a season ending injury during the race – so to finish second says a lot about the horse and at the prices I would have to be putting up Min as a confident selection at Bet365‘s 3/1.
|Min (win)||Arkle Chase||3/1||Bet365|
This great race needs no introduction and neither does the winner. Not seen since his win in last year’s Irish Champion Hurdle, Faugheen, is a best price of 5/2 at Unibet to regain his crown from 2015, which he couldn’t defend last year due to injury. Winning in his place last year was the apple of our eye, Annie Power, but she won’t run here unless Faugheen misses out again. That is the biggest risk and why he is the price he is. Due to make a comeback in the aforementioned Irish Champion Hurdle in a couple of weeks and if all is well with him after he wins that, you’ll be lucky to get on at Evens.
|Faugheen (win)||Champion Hurdle||5/2||Unibet|
The Mares Hurdle has now been upgraded to a Grade 1 race from a Grade 2 – sadly after Quevega had won it an amazing 6 times. The betting for this race is different everywhere you look and the reason for that is that no one knows which Rich Ricci mare will target it. There is a difference of opinion as to whether last year’s winner Vroum Vroum Mag should be the favourite, whether 2015 winner and last season’s Champion Hurdle winner Annie Power should be, or if ex-Willie Mullins trained Apples Jade – the only horse to have beaten Vroum Vroum Mag – should head the market. The way I look at the Rich Ricci dilemma is simple and I may be completely wrong, but I’d rather that than be face down on a doctors table getting splinters removed from below. If all are fit, I see Faugheen winning the Champion, Annie Power this race and Vroum Vroum Mag the Stayers. It’s simple logic really, Faugheen is the best 2 mile hurdler we have seen in recent years, Annie doesn’t stay 3 miles and Vroum Vroum is a machine who stays all day. All that said, for me Annie Power is a standout bet here at 3/1. If she lines up here she will be closer to even-money – or a shade bigger if the Apples Jade brigade foolishly thinks they would get near her. Again, have a saver – on Annie’s stablemate Limini – she will run here and the current odds of 14/1 about her are pure madness.
|Annie Power (win)||Mares Hurdle||3/1||Bet365|
|Limini (ew)||Mares Hurdle||14/1||Paddy Power|
Queen Mother Champion Chase
Unbeaten in all 12 outings since arriving from France – with the Supreme Novices’ in 2015 and last year’s Arkle amongst his tally of eight Grade 1’s, Douvan wins this all day long, it’s not open for discussion. But odds of 4/9 won’t make you rich and even if you are a big odds-on player that is no ante-post option. But WP Mullins also has last year’s runner-up, Un De Sceaux, entered – and he will probably run whether Douvan does or not, as there is little else for him. You could do little harm backing him each-way at 12/1 – should for any reason Douvan not turn up, then you’re on at a world beating price.
|Un De Sceaux (ew)||Champion Chase||12/1||Bet365|
Next it’s the turn of the staying hurdlers, and quite rightly the race name has reverted back to the Stayers’ Hurdle – having being called the World Hurdle for the past dozen years. Unowhatimeanharry, winner of last season’s Albert Bartlett Hurdle, has taken the step up in class in his stride this season winning both his two starts comfortably. That along with the form he showed in his novice year, makes him the one to beat in this and as a result he is a red hot favourite at best price 5/2 with Ladbrokes. However, you could question what he has beaten as I wouldn’t rate the English stayers very highly. His dangers lie in Ireland, primarily and not surprisingly in Closutton, the home of Willie Mullins. He has numerous horses that could trouble the favourite, but two stand out to me if we look at the form of the 3 mile Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown this December. Vroum Vroum Mag was seen entering the staying hurdle division – and she did so with ease. As I mentioned earlier, I think this is the race she will run and stand-out odds of 8/1 on her with William Hill look to be a gift from the gods. That said, the unlucky Melbourne Cup runner-up in 2015, and dual purpose talent, Clondaw Warrior, chased her home at Leopardstown that day. There are odds of 16/1 available about him at BetVictor, which must also be taken.
|Vroum Vroum Mag (ew)||Stayers Hurdle||8/1||William Hill|
|Clondaw Warrior (ew)||Stayers Hurdle||16/1||BetVictor|
This is a nightmare race for the four-year-old juvenile hurdlers. The betting is wide open at the moment and it is possible that the winner has not even been seen over hurdles in public as of yet. This isn’t a race that I’d normally have a bet on, but there are some tasty ante- post odds available, so its worth a couple of interests. The first one I like is a horse who has run, and won, a staggering 5 times since mid-October. Indeed, during that stretch he won 4 races in the space of two weeks, including a victory at Cheltenham where he stayed on strongly up the hill. He went on to win again back in December at Doncaster, but we might not see Cliffs Of Dover again until the Festival. A best price of 20/1 about him at BetVictor and Paddy Power looks overly big to me. The other horse I like is one of those who hasn’t been seen over hurdles in public as of yet – Bhutan is the horse in question and he has only ever been on a racecourse once – winning a flat maiden at Leopardstown when trained by Aidan O’Brien. He flew home that day to easily beat Housesofparliament, who himself went on to win a group 3 on the flat before being placed in the Leger. He is now trained by Joseph O’Brien, who won this race last year with Ivanovich Gorbatov and Bet365‘s 25/1 could look extremely big if he comes out and makes a successful jumps debut – I’d advise you take it before he does just that.
|Cliffs Of Dover (ew)||Triumph Hurdle||20/1||BetVictor, Paddy Power|
|Bhutan (ew)||Triumph Hurdle||25/1||Bet365|
Cheltenham Gold Cup
The big race of the week for many, not for me, but for many. This year’s race revolves around the now odds-on favourite – Thistlecrack. This horse dotted up here in the Stayers Hurdle last year and although eligible for the RSA Novice Chase this season they have admirably gone straight for Gold Cup given the horses experience and age. I’ll put it as plain as day, if he stands up, Tom Scudamore will be showered by the time the rest of them finish. However, as an ante-post bet at odds-on, again you would want to be a lunatic to even contemplate it. I wouldn’t even take odds-on come the day of the race itself! So if I look at this race without Thistlecrack, we need to find an each way bet or two. Native River is the second favourite at 6/1 and is a horse that has been improving all season, no more so than when winning the Welsh National under top weight on his last outing, but I just can’t have him in this grade at such short odds. For me the one who could finish second is Cue Card, he is currently available at 14/1 with Coral, but after getting his arse well and truly spanked behind Thistlecrack in the King George, I fear they could run to the Ryanair Chase. If they don’t, that 14/1 is way too big given the aforementioned Native River is 6/1. The others that I would put up as each-way plays at 33/1 are Minella Rocco – who is very much overpriced for connections who know only too well how to win this race, and also Vroum Vroum Mag, as if anything was to happen Djakadam, I can’t see Rich Ricci letting the Gold Cup go uncontested.
|Cue Card (ew)||Gold Cup||14/1||Coral|
|Minella Rocco (ew)||Gold Cup||33/1||Bet365|
|Vroum Vroum Mag (ew)||Gold Cup||33/1||Coral|