Jane Mangan marks your card for the first day of the Cheltenham Festival

The Cork racing expert will guide your through all 28 races from here until Friday
Jane Mangan marks your card for the first day of the Cheltenham Festival

Milan Native and Jack Kennedy (right) beats Discorama to win the Ryans Cleaning, Disinfecting, Waste Disposal And Recycling Steeplechase. Picture: Healy Racing Photo

HERE we go – four days – 28 races – let’s find some winners!

Everyone knew this year’s Cheltenham Festival would be different. No crowd, no owners, no roar and applause but before we even get to the first race, the abnormal has already begun. 

Declarations for the first day of the meeting emerged on Sunday Morning and many were taken aback by the size of the Grade 1 fields. Eight in the Supreme, six in the Arkle and 10 in the Champion.

Theories as the stimulus for such small numbers are simple in my mind. Owners can’t attend the meeting, so why would they run their horses? Yes, all the flagship horses are declared to do battle but before questioning the numbers, just remember that without owners there are no horses – not even at Cheltenham!

So now we begin. Can Willie Mullins hit the board in the opening race? Appreciate It was in many accumulators when swallowed by his stablemate Ferny Hollow in last year’s bumper. This season, he has looked sensational and damn near bombproof.

However, I think there is one horse in here that possesses more pace than Appreciate It and that is Harry Fry’s Metier. 

A flat maiden winner for Tipperary trainer Andy Slattery (the same man who sourced Faugheen), Metier is three from three over hurdles including a 12-length demolition display in the Tolworth Hurdle. Appreciate It is good but I’m taking him on with Metier in what should prove a thrilling Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

The Arkle went from a mouth-watering prospect to a one-horse race in the blink of an eye last week. Upon learning the news that Energume wouldn’t contest the race due to injury, supporters of Shishkin must have leaped for joy. With only six runners, this race isn’t even an each-way game and despite my admiration for the pace-setting Allmankind and the lurker Franco De Port, neither should get near Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin.

Nico de Boinville riding Shishkin clear the last to win The Ladbrokes Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at Kempton Park. Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Nico de Boinville riding Shishkin clear the last to win The Ladbrokes Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at Kempton Park. Picture: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle is the fifth race on the card but one could be forgiven for thinking the Champion was somewhat of a female affair. I cannot oppose Concertista in the 3.40 race but I can take on Honeysuckle in the Champion.

Unbeaten in 10 starts and a dual Irish Champion Hurdle winner, one might question my rationale in opposing a mare that doesn’t know how to get beaten but in Epatante, I think Honeysuckle will find herself vulnerable to her late turn of pace.

We all know Honeysuckle is a strong stayer, after all, she has won two Hattons Grace Hurdles over two and a half miles but with Aspire Tower, Not So Sleepy, Silver Streak and Goshen all likely to contribute to a frenetic pace, Honeysuckle could find herself drawn in following a very hot lead.

That factor steers my mind towards horses that are more likely to be ridden with patience from behind. Last year, Epatante and Sharjah picked up their opponents in the straight and with the added intrigue of Abacadabras, I think the same tactics will be employed this year, only Aidan Coleman aboard Epatante will have the luxury to wait longer because the field will be so strung out.

In a straight match on ratings, the two mares are considered 3lbs inferior to both Goshen and Sharjah but when you consider their 7lb gender allowance, the pair are clear. 

Epatante versus Honeysuckle. Whichever team you are on, isn’t it awesome that they meet in the main event and not the segregated race 35 minutes later?

The Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (also known as the Fred Winter) is never a race that excited this particular racing fan and this year is no exception! My selection is Riviere d’Etel for Denise Foster and Jack Kennedy. This French-bred mare is highly strung but has some decent form to her name including a 3 ½ length third to Thedevilscoachman on her most recent start in January.

Up until his suspension, Gordon Elliott had dominated the juvenile hurdle division on both sides of the Irish Sea and with Zanahiyr to come in the same colours as Riviere d’Etel on Friday, I wouldn’t be surprised if team Cullentra under the guidance of Denise Foster could kickstart their week in the juvenile bracket.

One statistic to note if you are considering a wager on a Willie Mullins trained horse in this race – Team Closutton are 0-14 in this race.

So there we have it, folks, Christmas is here. The presents aren’t the same and Santa was forced to wear a mask but let there be fun and games, it a respite we all need!

Selections:

Race 1 = Metier.

Race 2 = Shishkin.

Race 3 = Milan Native.

Race 4 = Epatante.

Race 5 = Concertista.

Race 6 = Riviere d’Etel.

Race 7 = Next Destination.

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