Right then, here we go. Barring the snow of 1987, the foot-and-mouth of 2001 and the high winds of 2008, this year’s Cheltenham Festival is ready to roll.
The preparations, the previews and the predictions have just about run their course. Now it’s time for the action that matters ON the course, and four days, comprising 28 races, of rich sporting drama that will yield another collection of names to add to the Festival’s lengthy roll of honour.
As revered owner JP McManus, who celebrated his 65th birthday last Thursday, once said: “The year centres on Cheltenham. All roads lead to it. Tou’re always looking for a horse for the Festival, or even for one for the year after that.”
The job for the mere mortals among us is deciding WHICH horses! Which geldings and which mares will write themselves into the annals of Festival history? Hopefully, this guide can help to steer you in the right direction.
As usual, JP himself has lined up a strong battalion of contenders, and it’s a fair bet that a large proportion of the £4 million prize money on offer this week will find its way into the coffers of McManus or fellow powerhouse owners, Rich Ricci, the Gigginstown Stud and Graham Wylie.
A cool £575,000 of that prize money is the record-breaking purse that awaits the winner of the Timico Gold Cup on Friday, the race to which the whole week builds up. An intriguing, high-quality renewal is in prospect and the fact that the bookies reckon they’ll be going 5/1 the field come Friday morning underlines both its competitiveness and strength in depth.
The ddfending champion, CONEYGREE, might be missing, because of injury, but the pair he pipped up the hill in a thrilling finale months ago, DJAKADAM and ROAD TO RICHES, are back for another crack. The former came within inches of breaking trainer Willie Mullins’s Gold Cup his duck with a magnificent performance for an inexperienced six-year-old. His preparation this time round was hampered by a fall at Cheltenham in January. But such an accident in the very same race failed to halt the great Dawn Run, trained by Mullins’s late father, Paddy, in one of the most memorable Gold Cups of all time exactly 30 years ago.
Noel Meade’s Road To Riches heads a cluster of legitimate challengers to Djakadam. His stirring performance in 2015 came on ground far softer than he prefers at the end of a prolific season of rapid improvement. His schedule has not gone smoothly this term, but he will relish the drying surface guaranteed on Friday.
Taking on Djakadam for favouritism will be two more Mullins hotpots in VAUTOUR and DON POLI, plus Gordon Elliott’s stable star DON COSSACK and loveable veteran CUE CARD, the pick of the UK-trained runners.
There can be little doubt that Vautour is the best horse in the race. After imperious wins in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle of 2014 and the Arkle Novices’ Chase last year, he looked all over the winner of the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day only to run out of gas within the shadow of the line on his first try at 3m. Mullins, owner Ricci and jockey Ruby Walsh are all confident he will stay the 3m2f of the Gold Cup. Most of the rest of us doubt it and dare to suggest that he is a horse capable of winning most races at the Festival but contesting the one he definitely can’t, especially as the presence of revitalised front-runner SMAD PLACE will ensure a strong gallop that will leave no hiding place for stamina limitations.
Don Poli, on the other hand, possesses deep reserves of stamina, not to mention grit and guts. And while his form does not measure up to that of many others in the race, he has an uncanny knack of grinding out victory, not to mention a penchant for Cheltenham where, like Vautour, he has won at the last two Festivals. It is fashionable to crab his victory in the RSA Novices’ Chase last year, but he became only the fourth winning six-year-old since 1978 and the first novice for 51 years to take the spoils without a prep run after Christmas. It is also worth remembering what Mullins said of him in the immediate aftermatch of that win: “He galloped up the hill like a loose horse. He has Gold Cup written all over him. He’s as a good a winner of the RSA that we’ve had.” Some statement considering he trained the fantastic Florida Pearl.
Representing the same Gigginstown Stud operation as Don Poli and Road To Riches is Don Cossack, pride and joy of Elliott, the only Irish trainer currently mixing it at the top table with Mullins. The Don has fluffed his lines at the last two Festivals, but majestic performances at Aintree and Punchestown (when downing Djakadam and twice eclipsing Cue Card) last spring confirmed his credentials as a class act. Worryingly, he has lacked his usual zip and zest in his last two outings, suggesting he might benefit from headgear, which Elliott has resisted. But one of those outings was the King George when despite travelling with any fluency, he would still have stayed on to win without a fall two out.
Don Cossack’s departure left Cue Card to pick up the pieces and reel in the tiring Vautour. And now previous stamina weaknesses appear to have disappeared, Colin Tizzard’s ten-year-old is a strong fancy to complete the Betfair Chase/King George/Gold Cup treble and collect a £1 million bonus only previously achieved by the mighty Kauto Star. As a former winner of both the Champion Bumper and the Ryanair Chase, Cue Card would complete an even more remarkable treble, although the stats suggest it’s not easy for a horse of his age to land the Blue Riband.
Both Tizzard’s charge and the aforementioned Smad Place, superb winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury and conqueror of Grand National hero Many Clouds last time, have been transformed this season by operations to help their breathing. Come 3.30 on Friday afternoon, we will all be holding our breath in anticipation of one of the great Gold Cups.
Time then for my race-by-race tipping guide. For all 28 contests, I have come up with what I perceive to the the likely winner at this early stage of the week. In brackets are what I consider to be the best of the rest.
The reason for multiple selections is twofold. Many running plans have yet to be finalised, while most races are so competitive, it is often worth backing more than one horse. All tips are to be viewed as potential winners. You choose, depending on your staking plans, whether to back them to win or each/way. Or, of course, disregard them altogether! It’s your choice! Have a great week!
DAY ONE (TUESDAY)
1.30 (2m Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) MIN (Buveur D’Air, Yorkhill, Charbel)
2.10 (2m Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase) DOUVAN (Baltimore Rock)
2.50 (3m1f Ultima Handicap Chase) THE YOUNG MASTER (Upswing, Knock House, Katkeau)
3.30 (2m Stan James Champion Hurdle) NICHOLS CANYON (The New One, Sempre Medici)
4.10 (2m4f) OLBG Mares’ Hurdle) VROUM VROUM MAG (Bitofapuzzle)
4.50 (4m National Hunt Novices’ Chase) ROI DES FRANCS (Local Show, Spookydooky, Vieux Lion Rouge)
5.30 (2m4f Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase) DOUBLE SHUFFLE (Aloomomo, Javert, On Tour)
DAY TWO (WEDNESDAY)
1.30 (2m5f Neptune Novices’ Hurdle) YANWORTH (Yorkhill, O O Seven, Bellshill)
2.10 (3m RSA Novices’ Chase) VYTA DU ROC (Blaklion, Seeyouatmidnight, Black Hercules)
2.50 (2m5f Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle) DIAMOND KING (Politologue, Zulu Oscar, Bentelimar, Baoulet Delaroque)
3.30 (2m Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase) UN DE SCEAUX (Sizing Granite)
4.10 (3m6f Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase) QUANTITATIVEASING (Cantlow)
4.50 (2m Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle) ARDAMIR (Diego Du Charmil, Messire Des Obeaux, Kasakh Noir)
5.30 (2m Weatherbys Champion Bumper) AUGUSTA KATE (Battleford, Ballyandy, Westend Story)
DAY THREE (THURSDAY)
1.30 (2m4f JLT Novices’ Chase) GARDE LA VICTOIRE (Shaneshill, L’Ami Serge, Kings Odyssey)
2.10 (3m Pertemps Handicap Hurdle) CUP FINAL (Taj Badalandabad, Warriors Tale, Saddlers Encore)
2.50 (2m5f Ryanair Chase) AL FEROF (Vibrato Valtat, Josses Hill) 3.30 (3m Ryanair World Hurdle) THISTLECRACK (Kilcooley)
4.10 (2m5f Brown Advisory Plate Handicap Chase) FULL SHIFT (The Saint James, Stilletto, La Vaticane, Kings Lad)
4.50 (2m1f Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle) CHOCCA WOCCA (Bloody Mary, Apple’s Jade)
5.30 (3m2f Kim Muir Handicap Chase) UPSWING (Perfect Candidate, A Good Skin, Knock House)
DAY FOUR (FRIDAY)
1.30 (2m1f JCB Triumph Hurdle) IVANOVICH GORBATOV (Let’s Dance, Footpad)
2.10 (2m1f Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle) SUPERB STORY (Desoto County, Cyrius Moriviere, Mad Jack Mytton, Modus)
2.50 (3m Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle) SHANTOU VILLAGE (Barters Hill, Jonniesofa, Vintage Clouds, Gangster)
3.30 (3m2f Timico Gold Cup Chase) DON POLI (Vautour, Smad Place)
4.10 (3m2f St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase) CURRENT EVENT (On The Fringe)
4.50 (2m5f Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle) MR MIX (Montdragon, Squouateur, Baoulet Delaroque, Sir Ivan, Work In Progress)
5.30 (2m Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase) DANDRIDGE (The Saint James, Sizing Codelco, Chris Pea Green)