With racing fans counting down the weeks and days until the start of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, the biggest question on most people’s minds must be – will Willie Mullins hold the key to the bookmaker’s safes, or be the biggest ally to their satchels after the first day? With short priced favourites in 5 of the opening day’s 7 races, surely it will be make or break for most punters. . The highly impressive Douvan heads the market at 5/2 for the opening race, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle and punters will be keen to get stuck in to him, to make it a hat trick in the race for owner Rich Ricci following on from Champagne Fever and Vautour, The horse with the huge reputation, Un De Sceaux heads the Arkle market at 3/1 closely followed by Vautour at 6/1, and with the mighty mare Annie Power seemingly heading towards the OLBG Mares Hurdle (now a Grade 1) at evens it surely means the betting ring at Prestbury Park will be a huge battle between punters and bookmakers all afternoon. The main doubt at this stage for ante-post punters on Day 1 is whether the classy novice chaser Don Poli at a general 3/1, goes for the 4 mile National Hunt Chase or takes his chance in the RSA Chase on Day 2. Mullins and Gigginstown hold several horses in the novice chase ranks so it could be a possibility that Valseur Lido may run in the 3 miles contest, clearing the way for Don Poli to run in the 4 miler. So let’s take a closer look at the big race on the opening day, the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Champion Hurdle – Contenders Faugheen The race of the Festival for most people will be in the Champion Hurdle, where the market is headed by the unbeaten Faugheen. Last season could not have gone any better for the Rich Ricci owned gelding, as he won multiple Grade 1s in Ireland over various trips, building a big reputation before heading to Cheltenham. Starting 6/4 favourite for the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle over 2m 5f at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, he dismantled his opposition, showing he has a huge engine, cancelling out some sloppy jumping errors normally associated with him, to come home a ready winner. This was followed up by a drop back in trip to 2 miles at the Punchestown Festival, where he beat some nice horses including Sgt Reckless, Western Boy, The Liquidator and Valseur Lido, who had all run admirably behind Faugheen’s stable companion Vautour at Cheltenham. This season has been nothing short of breath taking from Faugheen. Starting off 4/11 favourite for the Grade 2 Coral Ascot Hurdle, he made all and showed a huge turn of foot in a field which included the Nicky Henderson horse Blue Fashion, and Cheltenham and Aintree festival winner, Lac Fontana. Heading to Kempton on Boxing Day as the 4/11 favourite with an already might reputation, Faugheen showed nothing short of pure class, being ridden handily all the way around by Ruby Walsh before again showing his impressive turn of foot and engine by quickly going clear and winning the Grade 1 William Hill Christmas Hurdle with lots in reserve. This win was more impressive considering Fighting Fifth Grade 1 winner Irving, and vast improvers Sign of a Victory and Purple Bay were in the race also. Faugheen will apparently now head to the Cheltenham Festival without another prep run and will arrive with an army of fans and will almost certainly start off favourite on the day. He currently trades around 5/4 with most bookmakers. Hurricane Fly After a disappointing end to the 2013/14 season by losing his Champion Hurdle crown to Jezki at Cheltenham, and then being unable to reverse the result at the Punchestown Festival, Hurricane Fly had many people calling for his retirement, or at best a step up in trip to make way for the younger improving horses. However, racing is known to make fools out of so called ‘experts’ and Hurricane Fly proved this point, by silencing his doubters in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown by defeating his old rival and defending champion hurdler Jezki to land his 20th Grade 1 race. Christmas time is known to be a special time of the year, and this Yuletide was made even more special by Hurricane Fly again proving his doubters wrong by defeating Jezki for a second time this season in the Ryanair Hurdle, to take his total of Grade 1 wins to 21, extending his own world record. Some people will feel Faugheen is the number one horse heading to Cheltenham for Willie Mullin’s, but you could argue against Hurricane Fly is the stable’s number one. After all, he’s won 2 Grade 1s against the defending champion hurdler this season and has 2 champion hurdles to his name. Hurricane Fly and Jezki will clash one more time before the Festival in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. Whether victorious there or not, surely Hurricane Fly’s performances this year warrant him a chance to at least run in the Champion Hurdle in March and perhaps win it? Hurricane Fly can currently be backed at around 12/1 with the bookies. Jezki JP McManus purchased Jezki just before the 2013 Supreme Novices Hurdle, a race where he finished 3rd behind Champagne Fever and My Tent or Yours. Jezki improved throughout last season, starting off winning the Grade 1 Hatton’s Grace Hurdle before finding the race tactics and softer ground against him in Ireland twice last season in the Ryanair Hurdle and Irish Champion Hurdle. Starting off a 9/1 chance and very much the forgotten horse of the Champion Hurdle at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, Jezki was given a great ride and thrived off the better ground which he had not had all season, to beat My Tent or Yours and the unlucky The New One to become the new champion, thereby maintaining the 100% partnership between himself and jockey Barry Geraghty. Jezki went on to stamp his authority on the 2 mile hurdle division to again beat Hurricane Fly, this time at Punchestown, and to lay down the law for his rivals for the new season. This season seems to mimic his early season performances last year as he has not had the better ground that suits him, yet he still shows the signs of a class animal, and one would guess that the handbrake has not fully been let off yet. With better ground almost being assured at Cheltenham, I feel he is one to be on side with, and to reverse this season’s form with Hurricane Fly. Jezki can be backed with most firms at 6/1. The New One If there is a horse that deserves to win a Champion Hurdle, you will not find one more deserving than The New One. Following on from his 2013 success in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle, he put in some good performances last season, when beating Zarkandar to win the International hurdle and then just being touched off by My Tent or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, after making a terrible mistake at the last which almost certainly cost him the race. He went to last year’s Festival as 2nd favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, and finished 3rd behind Jezki and My Tent or Yours. The biggest factor of the race happened when in the back straight when the ill-fated Our Conor lost his life by diving head first at a hurdle, coming down right in the path of The New One who was stopped in his tracks. This left him with too much to do, and although showing his devastating turn of foot in the home straight, he could only finish 3rd. This season has been foot perfect for The New One, seemingly ironing out his occasional jumping errors. He has had impressive wins at Kempton, Haydock and most recently at Cheltenham, beating last year’s Supreme Novices Hurdle 3rd Vaniteux, to win the International hurdle for the 2nd straight year. The future looks very bright for this horse. He is due to have one more prep run at Haydock tomorrow on Peter Marsh Chase day and then on to the Champion Hurdle in March. I am a huge Faugheen fan myself, but the rival that I fear the most is The New One. If he jumps a length behind Faugheen at the last with Jezki also in touch, it will make for a fabulous finish. Faugheen’s engine, Jezki’s staying ability and The New One’s turn of foot, who wins? The New One can be backed at around 5/2 for the Champion Hurdle. Best of the Rest Other than the top 4 horses in the market, nothing appeals to me as good enough to win the Champion Hurdle, but there could be a place to be gained if one of the market leaders is not firing. The best of the rest on form has to be Irving. He ran well to beat the highly progressive mare Aurore D’Estruval in the Fighting Fifth hurdle at Newcastle this season, but subsequently ran a poor race at Kempton, which can be excused as he was found to have puss in his foot after the race. The worry for me would be that he ran a shocking race when joint favourite at Cheltenham for the Supreme Novices Hurdle, but if he puts it all right, he could sneak into the places at 33/1. Tiger Roll, last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle winner, has not been seen at his best at all this season; his only win came when defeating Calipto at Cheltenham. He is another horse who seems to thrive on better ground, and performs well at Cheltenham and is another to consider at for a place qt 25/1. The rest of the field is likely to be made up of horses like Purple Bay, Vaniteux, Sign of a Victory and Arctic Fire; none of these I feel are good enough. Advice 2 pts win – Faugheen 1 pt e/w – Jezki For our exclusive Community Members only preview of the RSA Chase, JOIN US for just £6 per month. You’ll also get £10 off admission to our Cheltenham Festival Preview Evening in Cheltenham on Friday 6 March, tips every day and much more – learn more about Free and Community Membership.
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