THE Cheltenham Festival has finally arrived after some nervy moments in recent days over this Coronavirus.
But it’s all systems go at this stage as punters gear up for four days of fantastic racing and high drama on the beautiful Cotswolds.
The extremely wet winter hasn’t dried out the course sufficiently so we are likely to get underway on a soft surface which will make life tricky for punters. The championship races have a very open feel about them with the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup both regarded as wide open affairs.
Al Boum Photo provided Paul Townend and Willie Mullins with a first ever Gold Cup last season while the victory of Paisley Park for owner Andrew Gimmell pulled on the heart strings as his enthusiastic owner is blind from birth. Innishannon jockey Aidan Coleman will be anxious to retain the Stayers Hurdle crown on Paisley Park and must have every chance of a repeat success.
The Champion Chase is regarded as the race of the meeting with Altior seeking a third consecutive victory in the race while Defi Du Seuil and Chaqun Pour Soi are both capable of massive runs. The latter will be ridden by Paul Townend who is the bookmakers favourite to be crowned champion jockey for the week.
For those on Leeside who have followed the career of Townend since he won the Galway Hurdle as a 17-year-old this has been some journey. The Lisgoold rider will enter this year’s festival as the no 1 rider for Willie Mullins following the retirement of Ruby Walsh. Townend will have fancied horses in so many races this week and his new role will bring pressure like no other time in his career.
Davy Russell is also set for a massive week with plenty of very good chances including the ‘Irish banker’ Envoi Allen who has looked very good all season winning three Grade 1 contests.
Russell will ride Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup and connections appear quietly confident of a huge run. Presenting Percy went off favourite in last years renewal but ran disappointingly after picking up an injury during the race.
Rachael Blackmore has broken plenty of records already and she has a massive book of rides for Dungarvan-based trainer Henry De Bromhead. They include Notebook who is favourite for the Arkle and the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle who goes head to head with Bennie Des Dieux in a cracking Mares Hurdle on the opening day.
Up and coming English trainer Ollie Murphy is the son of well-known Upton native Aidan Murphy who has been a leading bloodstock agent for many years now. Brewinupastorm represents the Murphy’s and must have a great each/way chance in the Arkle.
The Champion Hurdle looks a real puzzle with bookmakers making the mare Epatante 7/2 favourite following her impressive Christmas Hurdle victory. I’m not convinced by Epatante as she ran very disappointingly in the mares novice hurdle at last years festival.
Nicky Henderson has five runners in total with last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills second favourite for the race at 5/1. Punters will have to forgive him a couple of below par runs already this season although Pentland Hills is reportedly working very well with connections confident of a big performance.
Willie Mullins has supplemented Cilaos Emery while the Jessica Harrington trained Supasundae is more than capable of a big run. Davy Russell will ride another lively outsider Coeur Sublime for the Gordon Elliot team. It certainly looks a very average Champion Hurdle with Pentland Hills getting a tentative vote.
The Cheltenham Festival gets underway with a cracking opening card and a very strong Irish challenge. The opening supreme novice hurdle looks a hot race with Cork man and former bookmaker Joe Donnelly having two chances of victory with the market principals Shiskin and Asterion Forlonge.
The latter is trained by Willie Mullins who has an outstanding record with six previous victories in the race. Asterion Forlonge has been hammered in the betting in recent days and looks certain to be the frame. Gordon Elliot’s Abracadbras has done nothing wrong all season and was fourth in the bumper last season but the soft ground wont suit his chances.
Nicky Henderson also has Chantry House who looks a very interesting contender for the JP McManus team. All three novice hurdle races look very competitive and punters will forensically study the form of horses with good performances on underfoot conditions.
The Big Breakaway for the Colin Tizzard team is proven on soft ground and will give the Irish banker Envoi Allen the race of his life in the Ballymore on Wednesday.