THE Cheltenham Festival gets underway with a cracking card which includes the Champion Hurdle as the feature race on day one.
In truth, this is a real puzzle for punters with a huge field of 17 runners going to post. Epatante is the uneasy 7/2 favourite who will be receiving the 7 Ibs mares allowance. She won the Christmas hurdle at Kempton convincingly and was installed favourite for this assignment following that impressive victory.
However, she went off a strong favourite for the mares novice hurdle at last year’s hurdle but ran deplorably to finish eight. If you can forgive Epatante that run she has serious credentials and has won four of her five races. But course form is everything around Cheltenham and for that reason the favourite lacks appeal.
A number of the Irish horses including Coeur Sublime, Sharjah and Supasundae have seen plenty of each-way support in recent days but the softer ground conditions may scupper their chances.
After much soul-searching, I fancy Pentland Hills to give Nicky Henderson a dream start to the festival. Last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner has been the subject of very positive reports in recent days and has the class to take this much-coveted crown.
The Supreme Novice Hurdle gets the festival underway with Asterion Forlonge and Shiskin disputing favouritism. Both horses are owned by Cork man Joe Donnelly and the former bookmaker has an outstanding chance of victory.
This is a very hot opening contest and the Irish challenge is led by Asterion Forlonge who is trained by Willie Mullins and will be ridden by Paul Townend. Gordon Elliot has Abracadras who has done little wrong but the very soft ground conditions on the opening day won’t play to his strengths.
Chantry House represents the all-conquering JP McManus team and must have an outstanding each/way chance. But preference is for the other Nicky Henderson runner Shishkin who looks all speed and will relish the test of stamina having won over 2 miles 3 furlongs on his latest victory at Huntingdon.
Rachael Blackmore will face her first big test of the meeting as her mount Notebook is the favourite for the Arkle Novice Chase. All eyes will be on Notebook as he boiled over at Leopardstown the last day which would be a big worry.
Fakir Doudairies is Joseph O’Brien’s best chance of a winner this week and the vibes from Piltown appear very good. The soft ground will really suit and his brilliant jumping and front running style make him a massive player.
Others to consider include Cashback for Willie Mullins and Brewinupastorm for Ollie Murphy and both will have their supporters. But the vibes from the O’Brien camp are very good so expect Fakir Doudairies to land the Arkle novice chase.
This is a huge week for trainer Paul Nolan and jockey Bryan Cooper. Both are back in the spotlight with their outstanding novice hurdler Latest Exhibition who runs in the Albert Bartlett on Friday.
But they are represented here by Discorama in this Ultima Handicap Chase and they have excellent claims of going close here. Discorama has finished runner-up twice already at Cheltenham but looks primed for a huge run here. Ground conditions will be crucial as Vinndication the favourite won well on soft ground at Ascot and looks the main danger to our selection.
The mares hurdle is some race with Bennie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle locking horns after both impressed all winter at home.
Connections of the favourite appear bullish after Bennie romped to victory on Thyestes Chase day at Gowran Park. Both horses held entries in the Champion Hurdle but have been rerouted here. It’s a cracking contest but preference is for Bennie Des Dieux to make amends for her last hurdle fall at last year's festival.
The novices handicap chase follows the mares hurdle and this looks a wide-open contest. Gordon Elliot has been winning plenty of handicaps at all the major festivals and his runner Galvin can give Davy Russell another festival winner.
The National Hunt Chase provides our amateur riders with a brilliant chance to grab the headlines at the home of national hunt racing. Jamie Codd is a master around here and his mount Ravenhill boasts serious form. Gordon Elliot’s charge was fifth in the Galway Plate and was only beaten a head in the Kerry National at Listowel. Carefully Selected represents the Mullins team and Patrick Mullins has been waxing lyrical about his chances.
But jumping is the name of the game around here and Carefully Selected has never been a natural over fences. Derek O’Connor is also one of our top amateurs and his ride Forza Milan has to be respected. But preference is for Ravenhill who can send punters home happy on day one.
1.30pm, Supreme Novice Hurdle: Shiskin, Barry Geraghty, Nicky Henderson.
2.10pm, Arkle Novice Chase: Fakir D’Oudairies, Mark Walsh, Joseph O’Brien.
2.50pm, Ultima Handicap Chase: Discorama, Bryan Cooper, Paul Nolan.
3.30pm, Unibet Champion Hurdle: Pentland Hills, N de Bonville, Nicky Henderson.
4.10pm, Mares Hurdle: Benie Des Dieux, Paul Townend, Willie Mullins.
4.50pm, Northern Trust Handicap: Galvin, Davy Russell, Gordon Elliot.
5.30pm, National Hunt Chase: Ravenhill, Jamie Codd, Gordon Elliot.