Tuesday 19th of March 2019
Racing

Turf Talk: Cheltenham Festival 2016

by Kitty Trice // Cheltenham Festival

The 2015-2016 National Hunt season has witnessed the revival of several former champions.

Sprinter Sacre started the trend when he returned to the winner’s enclosure in emphatic style at Cheltenham in November and followed up with victory at Kempton in December over the resurgent Sire De Grugy. 

 

Racegoers watch The William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle Race during day one of the 2012 Cheltenham Fesitval at Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire.

Racegoers watch The William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Race during day one of the 2012 Cheltenham Fesitval at Cheltenham Racecourse, Gloucestershire. © Cheltenham Racecourse

Who could forget the immensely popular Cue Card, who won the King George on Boxing Day ahead of Willie Mullins’ hugely talented Vautour?

Racing’s attention now turns to the pinnacle of the jump racing calendar – the Cheltenham Festival. Held over four days from the 15th to the 18th March, can the returning stars continue to dominate, or will the powerful Willie Mullins team sweep up the major prizes, courtesy of owners such as Rich Ricci?

With 27 races and over £4 million in prize money, this year’s Festival is set to be action-packed.

Tuesday

The feature race of the opening day of the Festival is the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Run over two miles, previous winners include the 2011 and 2013 winner Hurricane Fly, who retired in August after winning a record 22 Grade 1 races, and J.P McManus’s triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq.

Last year’s winner Faugheen, who soundly beat stable mates Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon in the Irish Champion Hurdle, has been ruled out of the Festival due to injury. Whilst this is a significant blow to the Mullins’ team, the leading Irish trainer has several other worthy candidates to take Faugheen’s place.

Stable mate Nichols Canyon won a Grade 1 in Ireland over the Christmas period but finished a distant third behind Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle last year. With Faugheen injured, this year’s Champion Hurdle is arguably his best chance of landing the title.

Former World Hurdle runner-up Annie Power is likely to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle after impressing when winning at Punchestown in February – albeit in a poorly contested race. The eight year-old,who fell at the final hurdle in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle, is highly versatile and connections are yet to decide which race to choose. She has proven speed, as well as stamina, and so could be a leading player in this year’s renewal.

The British challenge is likely to be headed by the ever-consistent The New One. A winner at the 2013 Festival, he finished an unlucky third in the 2014 renewal when badly hampered by the fatal fall of Our  Conor. He then went on to finish fifth last year after a difficult build up to the race. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies remains optimistic about his stable star’s chances as he has only finished out of the top three twice in his 23-race career.

This season he was second behind Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and was workman-like when winning the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock in unfavourable conditions.

Nicky Henderson has five entered including the 2015 Triumph Hurdle winner Peace And Co, Top Notch, and 2014 runner-up My Tent Or Yours. Peace And Co who disappointed on both his starts this season when finishing sixth at Cheltenham and third at Sandown, is uncertain to run at this stage.  

My Tent Or Yours has been off the track since the 2014 Scottish Champion Hurdle but he is a proven Grade 1 performer, when winning the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles, and could run well if back to form.

Faugheen ridden by Ruby Walsh on their way to victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy

Faugheen ridden by Ruby Walsh on their way to victory in the Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy © Cheltenham Racecourse

 

Horses to follow for Tuesday:

Arkle Chase: Douvan

He has won all his races over fences with ease so far and is considered by Willie Mullins to be one of the best he has ever trained.  Best price: 2/5 with Bet 365.

Supreme Novices Hurdle: Altior

The Nicky Henderson trained gelding won well at Cheltenham in November and went on to win by a larger margin at Kempton over Christmas. He is highly tipped as the one to challenge the favourite Min.  Best Price: 7/2 with Betfair.

Wednesday

The Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase looks set to be one of the most competitive and exciting races of the week. Last season’s Arkle winner Un De Sceaux heads the market but after the performances of Sire DeGrugy and Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid Chases respectively, the races looks much more open.

Un De Sceaux fell on his seasonal debut at Leopardstown but went on to win well by five lengths ahead of Sire De Grugy in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot. He has a phenomenal cruising speed and is arguably the one to beat on Wednesday’s feature race.

There has been a huge amount of debate regarding how much ability Sire and Sprinter retain, with many believing that the younger legs of Un De Sceaux will get the better of them up the Cheltenham hill. However, the Irish raider has to stay on his feet and his jumping will arguably be put under more pressure in a strongly run race. 

Sprinter Sacre is a horse who often shows his best around Prestbury Park and, despite pulling up last year in the race, showed something similar to his old sparkle in the Shloer Chase in November.  In truth, whilst nobody will pretend that the Network gelding is the unbeatable force he was in 2013, he is still a formidable opponent and will be given every opportunity by Nicky Henderson to shine on the big stage once again.

Sire De Grugy, trained by Gary Moore and ridden by son Jamie, did not have the most auspicious start to the season when finishing last of five in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. The Preston Friends & Family owned gelding returned to good form when winning the Tingle Creek in December and finished three quarters of a length behind Sprinter at Kempton. He then finished five lengths behind a dominant Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase and it is hard to see him reversing the form at Cheltenham. However, he is a very good horse on top form and it would be unwise to rule him out of the reckoning.

The 2015 winner Dodging Bullets is back in work after suffering a splint last autumn. Trained by Paul Nicholls, the Dubawi gelding won the Clarence House Chase at Ascot ahead of Sprinter last January before going on to win at Cheltenham. He finished a distant second behind mud lark Top Gamble on his reappearance this season but is bound to improve from the run and prefers better ground.

Ruby Walsh celebrates his victory on Douvan in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices´ Hurdle

Ruby Walsh celebrates his victory on Douvan in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices´ Hurdle © Cheltenham Racecourse

Horses to follow for Wednesday:

RSA Chase: More Of That

Former World Hurdle winner More Of That is second favourite for the RSA Chase behind No More Heroes, having won both of his starts over fences. Trained by Jonjo O’Neill, he is an exciting contender for next year’s Gold Cup. Best Price: 9/4 with William Hill.

Neptune Investments Novices Hurdle: Yanworth

The Alan King-trained gelding won well in a Grade 2 at Ascot and prevailed  over a longer distance on trials day at Cheltenham.  Ominously for his rivals, his trainer said he would improve as he matures and would suit any ground. Best Price: 6/4 with Betfair.

Thursday

The Ladbrokes World Hurdle is the pinnacle of the season for long distance hurdlers and has some illustrious names to its roll of honour.The incomparable Big Bucks won this race a record breaking four times from 2009 to 2012 following an unsuccessful chasing career.

Colin Tizzard trains the favourite Thistlecrack who won impressively at Newbury, beating the reigning champion Cole Harden, and more recently in the Grade One JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot. He stamped his claims as favourite for this race when winning the Cleeve Hurdle with ease on Cheltenham Trials Day and leaving his jockey Tom Scudamore speechless.

Willie Mullins has two exceptional mares entered in the form of Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag. It is thought likely that Annie Power will take part in the Champion Hurdle to replace the injured Faugheen for owner Rich Ricci.

Vroum Vroum Mag won the Mares’ Hurdle at Ascot impressively but connections are still unsure about which route to send her down. She has won over hurdles and fences and therefore is a strong candidate for either the mares’, Ryanair Chase or World Hurdle.

Cole Harden’s victory in this race last year gave smaller trainers and yards hope that they could take on and beat the big guns. Having finished third on both starts this season, where the ground was not ideal, his trainer Warren Greatrex will undoubtedly have him fully prepared for the big day.

Horses to follow for Thursday:

Ryanair Chase: Al Ferof

John Hales’ consistent grey has been in good form since leaving Paul Nicholls’ yard to join Dan Skelton. He won the Peterborough Chase and finished third for the third year running in a very strong King George.

He is a former Festival winner and the Ryanair looks to be an open race this year. 

Best Price: 13/2 with Betway.

JLT Novices Chase: Bristol De Mai

Trained by Nigel Twiston Davies, this horse has very consistent form and impressed hugely when winning the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase at Sandown.

He is still only a five-year-old and he continues to improve with each run. Best Price: 9/2 with Betways.

Friday

The final day of the Festival is centred around the most prestigious race of the week – the Timico Gold Cup.  Currently Irish raiders trained by the in-form Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott dominate the betting market.

British hopes were dealt a blow after last year’s winner Coneygree was ruled out for the rest of the season following an injury to his hock.  However, Cue Card is no back number and has looked a rejuvenated horse this season for trainer Colin Tizzard. Following a wind operation he emphatically won the Charlie Hall and Betfair chases before going on to King George glory. The ten year old gelding currently sits fourth in the betting market behind Don Cossack, Vautour and Djakadam.

The quartet of Vautour, Djakadam, Valseur Lido and Don Poli aim to give Mullins his first win in the race after five runner-up spots in the past. Vautour was narrowly defeated by Cue Card in the King George and it has been questioned whether he will stay the three miles and two furlongs of the Gold Cup. He has also been entered for the Ryanair on the Thursday and the Champion Chase on the Wednesday but jockey Ruby Walsh remains convinced that he has the stamina to last the trip.

Last year’s runner up Djakadam narrowly missed out to Coneygree but at seven years of age he clearly has further improvement and was impressive at Punchestown in early December. Despite a heavy fall in the Bet Bright Trial Chase at Cheltenham, he will head to the Gold Cup without another run under his belt but remains a solid contender nevertheless.

Don Poli is visually not the most impressive horse but his relentless gallop and undoubted stamina makes him a force to be reckoned with at Cheltenham. He is also a proven Cheltenham performer when winning the RSA Chase at the 2015 Festival and will arrive fresh and well having not run since the Lexus Chase in December.

Don Cossack remains joint favourite for the feature race of the Festival despite falling in the King George.  He came back to win at Thurles in January in workman like fashion which did not impressive everyone. The Gordon Elliott-trained star had a stellar season last year when demolishing top class fields at Aintree and Punchestown Festivals after a third place finish in the Ryanair Chase.        

All eyes will be on Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton and Pacha du Polder in the Foxhunter Chase following the Gold Cup.                                                                                                                                                       

Coneygree ridden by Nico de Boinville jumps the last fence on his way to winning The Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase

Coneygree ridden by Nico de Boinville jumps the last fence on his way to winning The Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase © Cheltenham Racecourse

Horses to follow for Friday:

Foxhunter Chase: On The Fringe

The JP McManus-owned gelding landed a historic double last season when winning both the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham and the Aintree Foxhunter Chase under Nina Carberry.  

He currently leads the market again and in top form could be difficult to beat. Best Price: 11/4 with Paddy Power.

Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle: Shantou Village

The Neil Mulholland-trained five year old won convincingly at Cheltenham in November and finished a gallant second to Yanworth in a step up in trip. Best Price: 6/1 with William Hill.

Horse to Watch

Saphir De Rheu

This horse is a Gold Cup horse in the making but has reverted to hurdles this season after finishing fifth in the Hennessey Gold Cup. He has previously finished second in the World Hurdle and thrives on good ground. Following a wind operation he had a racecourse gallop at Kempton and is reported to be in good form.

 

Jockey to Watch

Bryan Cooper

The Gigginstown House Stud-retained jockey is only 23 years of age but rides with maturity and style. He rode three winners at the 2013 Festival and has the enviable choice of Don Cossack or Don Poli for this year’s Gold Cup.

Trainer to Watch

Willie Mullins

The obvious choice but the master Irish trainer has a 60-strong team of horses to take to the Festival. His talent lies in recognising a horse’s strengths and planning their runs. 

(Facts and betting prices correct as of 1300h on March 14th.)

www.thefestival2016.co.uk

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