“I am fully aware that getting started on Cheltenham tips (I genuinely felt a shiver of excitement just typing the world ‘Cheltenham’ then) this far in advance is slightly ludicrous as so much can happen from now until mid-March, especially with Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci involved. #
There will likely be relatively unknown sorts rising-up the handicap ranks to throw themselves into the championship race mixing-pot, and how will a couple of superstars return from injury? All will be revealed in the next five months and you just know it’s all anyone will talk about up until then!” JJ
The feature race on day one of the Cheltenham Festival is of course the pinnacle of two-mile hurdling, the Champion Hurdle.
Buveur D’Air acts as the current favourite at a best price of around 4/1 with a few of firms. Nicky Henderson should be applauded for the last-minute change of direction he took with this son of Crillon, after a tricky couple of novice chases at Haydock and Warwick, which he won well but jumped somewhat erratically at times.
Since reverting to hurdles he hasn’t looked back, winning the Champion Hurdle and Aintree Hurdle by a combined nine lengths. However, the two-mile hurdle division looked weak at best last season, and with some big names set to return and the exciting novices from last year coming through, I’m happy to look elsewhere.
Faugheen would destroy these at his best, and the last time we saw him taking the Irish Champion Hurdle by 15 lengths was probably the best two-mile hurdling performance I have ever seen. Nevertheless, that ‘if’ he returns to his best should be capitalised, bolded and underlined; he’s been off for a long old while now, and we’ll need to reassess after his initial intended return this season, the Morgiana Hurdle.
Now let’s get onto the tips shall we…
I know there are plenty of stats that categorically state a five-year-old will NOT run well in the Champion Hurdle, but when that five-year-old is DEFI DU SEUIL (8/1) you can throw your stats book out the window.
Phillip Hobbs and J P McManus have an absolute monster on their hands here, and there is still room to improve from last year’s juvenile form, where he went seven from seven.
For whatever reason it seemed like punters and pundits alike were gunning for him to lose all year long, predicting he’d lose after every tiny inclination of weakness. Yes, he didn’t jump amazingly when winning the Future Champions Finale at Chepstow by 13 lengths - BUT HE WON BY 13 LENGTHS.
He looked a different species to his competitors in the Triumph Hurdle but because of the hype machine surrounding Charlie Parcs he was available at a frighteningly good 5/2 before the race.
After destroying the field by five lengths he went on to take the grade one juvenile hurdle at Aintree by an eased down length and half. There are still plenty of doubters about, and he’ll have to step up again in this much more competitive division, but if Faugheen doesn’t return 100% it’s not exactly drenched in quality, and with this lad’s engine he’ll surely go close.
My second pick at a much larger price is the horse that seems to have been around for Millenia, ARCTIC FIRE (33/1). It then blew my mind when researching this race to note that Arctic Fire is only eight-years-old! He was second to Faugheen in the 2015 Champion Hurdle, where he was definitely ridden to place, after staying on like a train up the hill to only go down by a length and a half.
Even a repeat of that form would almost certainly be good enough to go close in this race in 2018 and with so many question marks surrounding Faugheen, he’s no 33/1 shot.
Not much was expected by his trainer Willie Mullins when he returned from 14 months off in the County Hurdle off of top weight, but he travelled all over them to just outlast L’Ami Serge, taking his Cheltenham Festival record to 2-2-1.
On only his second start of the season he ran another blinder to place third in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle where the winner just got away from them early on.
I’m not certain of the season plan for this one but after attempting and failing at further earlier in his career you would expect all roads lead to the Champion Hurdle 2018 so long as he stays fit, and if he gets there he’s more like a 6/1 shot in my book.
DEFI DU SEUIL – BET NOW
ARCTIC FIRE E/W – BET NOW?
Willie Mullins dominated this race for years with Quevega, and in all honesty, it got slightly boring and frustrating with such a talented mare running in a usually substandard race.
However, last year the Mares’ was one of the races of the entire meeting ending with a three way go for the line between the top three in the market, Apple’s Jade, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag. The Gordon Elliot trained Apple’s Jade ended up landing the spoils, but of the three I would be most interested in VVM as the vibes weren’t great surrounding her in the weeks leading up to the race and she was likely not at her best.
But, I’ve ended up avoiding all three and taking an early risk with one at a massive price; 40/1 shot KAYF GRACE (40/1) for Nicky Henderson.
I’ve been keeping an ever-watching eye on this filly since her Aintree bumper form started to look objectively silly. After taking a nothing race at Ffos Las by a scary 53 lengths she won a bumper at the Aintree Festival ahead of Augusta Kate, who won next time and of course won a grade one over hurdles last season.
In fact, the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th & 16th horses all won next time out and the 4th, 6th and 10th horses won within two starts. On her only hurdling start to date she ended an easy victor at Bangor despite some jumping errors and then it was full steam ahead to the Tolworth where she unfortunately picked up an injury two days before the Sandown event.
I actually tipped her that day, and the fact Nicky Henderson put her up against the boys means she could easily go another way this season, but the logical path would by this and if so, I’ll be sitting happy on 40/1.
KAYF GRACE E/W – BET NOW
Regulars to these articles will know how much a fan I am of the brilliant Sprinter Sacre. He is the reason my love of racing turned into an obsession and it was his eye-boggling victories in the Arkle 2012 and the Champion Chase 2013 that spurred this.
The premier two-mile chase has had a place in my heart ever since then, but it hasn’t been the most competitive of divisions for a while. It is widely accepted that had Douvan been fit last season he would have won the race, but it was nice to see Special Tiara finally nail a big prize after so many fantastic efforts for Henry De Bromhead.
However, this year the Champion Chase could be catapulted into another stratosphere with the potential heavyweight clash between Altior and Douvan. Anyone who is anyone has been arguing about who would reign supreme between these two ever since it was decided Altior would go chasing, and when/if it eventually happens the National Hunt scene would surely reach front page news once again.
Nevertheless, I have my doubts. Willie Mullins and Ricci have, in the past, kept their best horses apart, think Vautour and Djakadam, think Annie Power and Faugheen. So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they kept Min - who is apparently tearing it up at home - and Douvan apart should both make it in working order to the Festival.
What’s more, I think we can all agree finally that Djakadam isn’t good enough to win a Gold Cup and we equally all know how much Ricci wants that Cup on his mantlepiece. There is no way on this earth he’ll run a brilliant horse in the Ryanair considering what Vautour did in that race after ducking the longer distance - so I can very much envisage a scenario where Douvan is tried at further this season.
Furthermore, at the prices you have to be against Altior this far out, especially as it was no forgone conclusion he would have won the Arkle last season had Charbel stood up after a game effort from the front. So, at the moment, with so much up in the air I’m against the two at the top of the market.
Therefore, I’m going to be siding with one of the most impressive novice chasers from last season GREAT FIELD (12/1).
The Mullins and McManus purchase only had two runs over hurdles, the first of which a facile victory at Leopardstown before being pulled-up in the County Hurdle 2016 where something was clearly amiss. That anomaly acts as his only defeat since transferring to the Willie Mullins yard, in fact he has won his four chase starts since by a cumulative 58 ½ lengths, and by an average distance of 14 ½ lengths.
He started off his career over fences with a typical front running masterclass, ending up seven lengths ahead of Mall Dini, who went off favourite for that year’s Kim Muir and ended up an unlucky 5th of 24 after meeting some trouble in running.
After that he would have beaten Don’t Touch It by much further but for a huge mistake at the second last where regular rider Jody McGarvey worked a minor miracle to stay on board – Don’t Touch went on to win at the Punchestown Festival, and the third Woodland Opera won his next two.
It was another massive improvement when stepped up into listed company when he won by a silly 32 lengths, but once again he made a big error at the second last.
Willie Mullins then decided to put him against the best in the grade one Ryanair Novice Chase at Punchestown. He went out like a greyhound again and absolutely destroyed them from the front, even with the saddle slipping a the second last. His running style matches that of Un De Sceaux and eventually he may need to calm down, but if he can nail that second last fence finally, at the prices he acts as a decent price against the top two in the market.
GREAT FIELD - BET NOW
Nichols Canyon and UnowhatImeanHarry can’t be split at the top of the market in the Stayers' Hurdle odds. The former took this race last season and has seemed to thrive since stepping up to three miles. However, the Harry Fry trained UnowhatImeanHarry clearly didn’t run his race for whatever reason at Cheltenham and got his revenge at Punchestown next time. I’d worry slightly about very quick ground for UnowhatImeanHarry but in a match bet I still just prefer him over the Mullins runner – but neither make my final selections.
In a weak looking division, I’ll be siding with a couple of the novices from last season coming through, the first of which being THE WORLDS END (12/1) for Tom George.
I was ALL OVER this novice in the Albert Bartlett after he destroyed No Hassle Hoff by nine lengths the run before, and I implore everyone to re-watch the move he made before coming down at the second last because it was simply astounding. The amount of ground he made in such a short amount of time was incredible to behold, so understandably I was in bits when he came down shortly after.
Next time he repaid my faith by taking the grade one Sefton Hurdle at Aintree by half a length, where he made a mistake at the last and despite winning, wasn’t at his absolute peak. Hopefully, we can see him back to his blistering best this season, and if so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him go off very short odds for this come March.
The second horse I like is the winner of last year’s Albert Bartlett PENHILL (14/1) - another for Willie Mullins.
I tipped this horse early on for the potato race in my Youtube videos last season, but ended up siding with, you guessed it, The Worlds End. He ended up going off at 16/1 but won comfortably by three and a half lengths, despite being forced very wide on the turn, ahead of the well fancied Monalee, showing a decent turn of foot in the closing stages.
Before that win he was unlucky in a grade one over hurdle over two miles when badly hampered and is unbeaten over three miles since then. The last time we saw him he was actually beaten at Punchestown, but he was given ridiculous amount to do by Ruby who looked supremely confident 10 lengths behind the leader coming around the bend. Unfortunately, he expanded too much energy getting to front from that uncompromising position and didn’t have anything to give after the last.
At 12/1 and 14/1 I’d be shocked if both of those selections didn’t go off half those prices or shorter if both lining up in March.
THE WORLDS END - BET NOW
PENHILL E/W - BET NOW?