The opening day of the meet is packed with top quality races and the highlight of the day is the Stan James Champion Hurdle. First held in 1927, the race has been won by the likes of Sea Pigeon, Monksfield, Istabraq and Hurricane Fly.
Having been dominated by Willie Mullins over the past decade, the race looks to be wide open this year without the likes of Willie Mullins’ past two winners, Faugheen and Annie Power, taking part. A strong British challenge, headed by the Alan King-trained Yanworth and the Nicky Henderson-trained Buveur D’Air, will attempt to wrestle the title back from the Irish for the first time in five years.
Yanworth, who finished second in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle behind the JLT-bound Yorkhill at the Festival last year, has won all three starts this season in workmanlike fashion. He will, however, likely be well suited to a stiffer track and faster pace so is one horse to keep on side.
Buveur D’Air originally went chasing this season, winning both starts over fences, until Henderson chose to revert to hurdles. Third in the Supreme Novices’ behind superstar stablemate Altior at last year’s Festival, he went on to beat fellow contender Petit Mouchoir in a grade one at Aintree too. This form is arguably very strong and he has done everything right over hurdles so far.
Other contenders include the ever-consistent The New One; always popular with the public, the 2015 Champion Bumper winner Moon Racer, and Willie Mullin’s Vroum Vroum Mag.
The Racing Post Arkle is always a spectacle to watch and with talents such as Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Douvan winning the novice two-mile chase, it is always one to keep an eye on for future superstars. Altior, who sauntered home in the Supreme Novices’ last year, has stamped his authority and class on the novice chasing division. A perfect four out of four over fences, and on a higher rating than the great Sprinter Sacre at this stage, he is the star attraction of day one.
Pick of the card:
– Supreme Novices’ Hurdle: Bunk Off Early (11/2 SkyBet)
– Mares’ Hurdle: Apples Jade (9/4 Paddy Power)
– National Hunt Chase: Beware The Bear (14/1 Ladbrokes)
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the feature of the second day. First run in 1959, the Queen Mother’s name was added in 1980 in celebration of her 80th birthday. There is no more thrilling sight than watching top class two mile chasers soar over the chase fences at top speed, and last year’s renewal will certainly be hard to top.
Sprinter Sacre, who won the race in extraordinary fashion in 2013, was returning from a two year layoff and was not expected to trouble the favourite, Un De Sceaux. After two fences out, he led the field to tumultuous applause and emotion.
As commentator Simon Holt exclaimed,
“the impossible dream came true.”
This year the imperious Douvan, winner of all his starts for trainer Willie Mullins, is expected to win in similar fashion. Unchallenged in nine starts over fences, he is 2/7 with William Hill to add another race to his bow. He has been described by Mullins as the best horse he has ever trained and, considering he has trained the likes of Hurricane Fly, that is a daunting prospect for his rivals.
The in-form Colin Tizzard brings the improving Fox Norton into the picture, despite being beaten 13 lengths by Altior at Newbury. That was his first run since injury in November, and his Shloer Chase win at Cheltenham was impressive. He has been no match for Douvan when they have met, but he is in the running for second place.
Grade one winner God’s Own, who often runs his best races in the spring, looks set to improve on his fourth place in the race last year and is well suited to spring ground.
Pick of the card:
– Neptune Novices’ Hurdle: Neon Wolf (9/4 Betfair)
– RSA Chase: Royal Vacation (16/1 Betfred)
– Champion Bumper: Western Ryder (8/1 Coral)
The Stayers’ Hurdle remains the highlight of the year for long distance hurdlers and, following Thistlecrack’s sensational win last year, this division has another firm favourite. Uknowhatimeanharry, who has been a revelation since being based with Harry Fry, has been unbeaten this season and looks one of the more solid bankers of the meet.
The winner of key trials such as the Cleeve and Long Walk Hurdles this season, he doesn’t necessarily win by massive margins. However, he has consistently beaten all that have opposed him without being asked serious questions.
One of his rivals will include the 2015 winner, Cole Harden. He returned to form in an otherwise fruitless season when finishing second to Harry on his last run despite the unsuitably soft ground. Given his preferred good ground, the Warren Greatrex-trained eight year old could be a force to reckon with.
2014 Champion Hurdle winner Jezki could be a serious threat to the favourite – he beat Hurricane Fly on his first race at three miles in 2015. Jessica Harrington’s stable stalwart was disappointing on his last run, when finishing second to Tombstone over two miles but there is no doubting his class when in top form.
The Ryanair Chase, often referred to as the fifth championship race of the meet, has been won by greats such as Cue Card and the late Vautour. Raced over two and a half miles, the exciting Un De Sceaux is favourite to take this year’s title. Second to a rejuvenated Sprinter Sacre in the Champion Chase last year, he has been in flying form when winning the Tingle Creek and Clarence House chases.
With age he has learnt to settle and relax through a race so will be ideally suited to the step up in trip. 2015 winner Uxizandre is likely to be his main danger, having run well to finish second in the Clarence House Chase after two years off.
Pick of the card:
– JLT Novices’ Chase: Top Notch (7/2 Paddy Power)
– Ryanair Chase: Un De Sceaux (7/2 Bet365)
– Mares Novices’ Hurdle: Lets Dance (9/4 Paddy Power)
If the Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of the National Hunt racing’s calendar, the Gold Cup remains the one prize every trainer and jockey dreams of winning. The illustrious winners list of this contest includes the likes of Arkle, Kauto Star, Desert Orchid, Denman and Best Mate.
The loss of King George VI hero, and last year’s Stayers’ Hurdle winner, Thistlecrack, is a blow to the race’s excitement but it remains a competitive affair. Two-time runner up in this race, Djakadam, has been kept fresh for this race after finishing third in the Lexus Chase in December. Now at his prime at the age of eight, he handles the track and is likely to be involved at the grilling end of the race.
Colin Tizzard still has two highly fancied contenders in the form of the evergreen Cue Card and the bold running Native River. Cue Card will be aiming to avenge his uncharacteristic fall in the race last year. Despite being 11 he is in flying form, having picked up two grade ones this season, and is a firm favourite with the Cheltenham crowd.
Native River seems to have found his ideal partner in Champion Jockey Richard Johnson, and the seven-year-old gelding has gone from strength to strength this season. After winning the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh National, he showed his class when winning the Denman Chase at Newbury with considerable ease. The Gold Cup is another step up but he has answered all the questions so far.
Last year’s winner Don Cossack has now retired, owing to a tendon injury, but his trainer Gordon Elliott still has an interesting contender – Outlander. The Gigginstown-owned gelding beat Djakadam and Valseur Lido in the Lexus Chase in December, fell in the JLT Novices’ Chase last year but has rapidly improved this season and can make a mark in a competitive field.
Sizing John made a late claim for this race when winning the Irish Gold Cup. As a two-miler chaser, he had the misfortune of running into Douvan and finishing runner-up to him seven times. Jessica Harrington’s runner appears to have found his niche as a three-mile chaser but will have to face the extra two and a half furlongs of the Gold Cup.
Pick of the card:
– Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle: Wholestone (13/2 Betfair)
– Foxhunter Chase: Wonderful Charm (9/2 Paddy Power)
– Grand Annual Chase: Dodging Bullets (14/1 Ladbrokes)