We are closer to start of the UK national hunt season than we are to the Cheltenham Festival (12th-15th March), but it’s nevertheless the event on everyone’s mind as trainers and jockeys prepare for the hard winter period of racing.
We have, of course, seen plenty of thunderous action already in the last few weeks, but the feeling is that it’s just the warm-up act to another thrilling Festival. Below is a brief guide to how the narrative is shaping up so far:
2018 heroes looking strong
For British and Irish fans, Cheltenham is the biggest horse racing betting event of the year, so it’s no surprise to see a lot of scrutiny of the betting markets. For several of the biggest races, it’s a case of ‘business as usual’. Altior, arguably the best jumps horse on the planet, was impressive in his first race of the season last week. He is best-priced at8/11 to win the Champion Chase (William Hill), with few pundits doubting he will do it again. Similarly, the brilliant Buveur D’Air is evens (Bet365) for a third successive Champion Hurdle. Both horses look in supreme form and will take a lot of money to win the first two feature races of the Festival.
Gold Cup puzzle
While the Champion Chase and ChampionHurdle have big favourites, the Gold Cup is as open as ever. The two Gold Cup protagonists at the 2018 Festival, Might Bite and winner Native River, certainly were not at their best in the Betfair Chase last month, and have seen their odds rattled as a result. The new favourite is the excellent Presenting Percyat 9/2 (Betfair), followed by Native River and Might Bite at 11/2 and 9/1respectively. But keep an eye out for Bristol de Mai, winner of that aforementioned BetfairChase. The current odds are 20/1, intriguing for a horse that could beat anyone on his day.
Willie Mullins’ moves
It’s clear that Willie Mullins – the most dominant trainer of the last decade at the Festival – has a lot of big decisions to make. Un De Sceaux, who gave Altior a great race in the Tingle Creek Chase, could be a big player once again atCheltenham, but the question is where to use the brilliant – and underrated10-year-old. The Ryanair Chase is an option, with odds of 10/1 floated byWilliam Hill. But perhaps Mullins will consider Un De Sceaux for another tilt at Altior in the Champion Chase? Current odds of 20/1 (various) will tempt some.
Where is the next generation?
The majority of horses mentioned above have already had at least one victory at the Cheltenham Festival in the past. However, there seems to be a lack ofnew candidates ready to take the mantle from the likes of Altior and Buveur D’Air.Sure, there is a lot of time between now and the Festival and there is almost guaranteed to be a shock or two during the event, but, on the whole, there seems to be a dearth of new faces pushing to be a big name. Perhaps one thatc ould fit the bill is the fast-improving Dynamite Dollars, winner of the HenryVIII Novices’ Chase last week. Paul Nicholl’s 5-year-old beat off competition from a couple of decent horses, including Lalor, and is given an interesting price of 14/1 by Betfred for the Arkle Chase. Worth keeping an eye on.