It’s already time to think about Cheltenham Festival 2018. It’s now less than 100 days until The Festival™ begins with the extravaganza that is Champion Day and already in this jumping addicted age we’ve seen plenty of potential contenders. So whom can we expect to look forward to seeing strutting their stuff on the Prestbury Park stage? Let’s give the crystal ball a spin.
The UniBet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy: The big race of the day. Faugheen is back, and until we see him again at Christmas then he is likely to dominate the market and narrative regarding the 2 mile division. His return in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown was in equal measures exciting and heartwarming for many, with Willie Mullins’ previous winner showing all the zest of his previous performances winning by 16 lengths, having always been in complete control. He looks over his injuries, but it will be fascinating to see him again. Will he be able to back up his reappearance performance at Leopardstown or perhaps Kempton?
This weekend we will see Buveur D’Air in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. Nicky Henderson’s charge thrashed his rivals in this race last season and was equally as impressive at Aintree when following up over four furlongs further. Both of those wins were as visually impressive as any UniBet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy performance one could hope to see and if he turns up in the same form then there will be an early season highlight to savour.
Outside of those two, the shortest-priced and perhaps most interesting contender for many is Melon. Second when favourite in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season after his impressive Leopardstown debut win, his return in the WKD Hurdle saw a couple of sloppy leaps, but he promises to improve more than others at the top of the market.
Cilaos Emery got the better of Melon at the Punchestown Festival, although he was greatly helped by an aggressive ride from Ruby Walsh despite being pressured a long way out by Pingshou and Melon might be the better horse of the two.
Wicklow Brave who was 10th in the Melbourne Cup got the better of My Tent Or Yours (second) with Artic Fire (third) in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and is an interesting contender for two mile races. For all that he was beaten 15 lengths when he last met Faugheen. Defi Du Seuil was certainly not right when he was beaten well before the last in the Coral Hurdle, and it remains to be seen if he is as good as he was.
Outside of those select few, it’s tricky to think of others who might be major contenders with many in the bookmakers lists sent to go chasing.
Now let’s take a look at the other races on the opening day of Cheltenham Festival 2018 and if you need tickets you can purchase them here – buy Cheltenham Festival 2018 tickets.
The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Race: The big question is where will Samcro turn up? It’s already assumed by many that Gordon Elliot has a sure-fire The Festival™ winner and for me he looks set to turn up in the Ballymore on Wednesday. His connections have another leading contender for this race in the shape of second season hurdler Mengli Khan, who looks set to run in the Royal Bond, having won the ‘For Auction’ Novice Hurdle at Navan. He dismissed the previous winner Saturnas on the bridle with Morgan well behind in third and should go well there.
Le Richebourg, who impressed during the Summer at Killarney and Galway, will love good spring ground but perhaps might not enjoy the soft ground he’ll get during the winner. He could take on Mengli Khan on Sunday in the Royal Bond.
On British soil, Slate House has already been over the course and distance and was took the eye in both his maiden hurdle win and also the The Sharp Novices’ Hurdle. He should have more improvement to come having had just two starts over hurdles whilst last year’s Champion Bumper fifth Claimantakinforgan was smooth on debut at Newbury.
Debuchet has had a setback but will be out before the end of the year assuming smooth progress and Red Jack, who beat him last year on debut and was a striking winner on his hurdling debut at Naas on heavy ground in another candidate.
The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Steeple Chase: This already looks to be a very strong renewal if the main contenders stay fit. Willie Mullins’ compliments about Footpad following his 11 length debut victory over Brelade at Navan say a lot: “He is a very natural jumper at home and he did the same here. I thought it was a good performance for a first time out novice. He’s as good a novice as I’ve seen schooling at home.”
We could see him in the Racing Post Chase on Boxing Day at Kempton, the route taken by Douvan, Sizing Europe and Min in recent years before a return to Cheltenham on Champion Day.
It’s a shame that Petit Mouchoir has suffered a serious setback that will see him out until at least January, which could make getting the required experience and fitness for the Arkle quite a struggle. He had looked just as good a chaser as he was a hurdler on his Punchestown debut when he beat Brelade by an easy seven lengths.
Ballyandy was fourth in the Supreme (and won the Betfair Hurdle) so we know he goes well here and he coped with soft ground impressively when getting the better of Fagan in a slowly run race on debut at Perth.
North Hill Harvey was impressive when getting the better of Movewiththetimes on his chasing debut at Cheltenham’s Showcase Meeting (Sceau Royal second giving 5lbs), and he handled the very testing ground to take the Arkle Trial at the November meeting. River Wylde did not handle the ground there and his limp effort should be written off. He looks a better chaser than hurdler based on his Uttoxeter win and back on good ground he should reach a very decent level over the bigger obstacles.
The Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase: A long way out to preview a handicap, but there are certain trends to look out for. Novices have won four of the last nine runnings. There have been just two horses aged eleven or over placed in the last fifteen runnings and eight of the last 18 winners have been placed at the Cheltenham Festival before. Last year’s renewal was a high-class affair.
This is a strong division, with Colin’s Sister having already taken the West Yorkshire Hurdle, beating open opposition in the shape of Wholestone (she runs at Newbury in the Long Distance on Friday), and it remains to be seen if some leading mares go against geldings, with the Stayers Hurdle an attractive option for her and Apple’s Jade. La Bague Au Roi was well beaten behind Let’s Dance last year but has won twice already, including over 3 miles at Kempton, and don’t forget Augusta Kate either.
The J T McNamara National Hunt Steeple Chase Challenge Cup (Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Steeple Chase): It’s a long way to preview this race given that most still harbour RSA Ambitions, but it’s worth focussing on those that head the betting with favourites doing well with the last three winning. Three of the last five winners have been top rated and 28 of the 32 winners had finished in the top four in their last. The picture will be clearer after Christmas.
To learn more about Champion Day visit the Cheltenham Festival 2018 website.