Buying yourself an early Christmas present is a luxury for many but according to the bookmakers JP McManus could well be taking the Long Walk Hurdle (2.35 on Saturday) home from Ascot. His Unkowhatimeanharry, one of many interesting purchases over the summer, was a progressive handicap hurdler last season who then took the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham to end what was a fantastic five timer. On his return he took apart a strong field in the Bet365 Hurdle, including the Sefton Novice Hurdle winner Ballyoptic who was blown away by six lengths. Clearly, he’s a worthy favourite. The French have often targeted this race, and also with great success too in the past few years, and in Francois Nicolle’s Alex De Larredya there’s another fascinating contender. This will be his first start out of France, but his deeply impressive win in the Grade One Grand Prix d’Automne was a performance that gives him as a major chance here, especially given how he reversed the form of his previous defeat to the Paul Nicholls trained Ptit Zig, who took France’s other great staying hurdle prize, the Grande Course De Haies D’Auteuil. Discussions at Tipsters Review’s Horse Racing Tips suggest that Yanworth could be another World Hurdle contender for JP McManus after his hard fought win in the Ascot Hurdle over 2m3f. The run on Saturday of consistent Lil Rockefeller, who was a brave second in the Ascot hurdle, ought to tell us a lot about how realistic those prospects are should connections want yet another live prospect for the top staying hurdler honours. For all of our tips on this and other Saturday races, please join us a Community Member. Elsewhere on a quality card, the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle (3.35) will provide betting opportunities as well as challenges a like for racegoers and punters. Last year’s joint winner Jolly’s Cracked It (tipped as our Saturday Steamer) attempts to make a remarkable return to take this race again, having been off the track since and it’s no surprise that he’s favourite considering his trainer and the fact that he’s gone up just 4lbs for that success. He’s been heavily backed this week but will face significant opposition, including from Nicky Henderson, as adept at any as getting the best out of young hurdlers. The fact that he brings Brain Power and Consul de Thaix, first and second in a valuable listed handicap at Sandown, ought to be taken note of. So too, is the fact that Dan Skelton, so adept at targeting valuable handicaps, gives Meet The Legend his first run in open company here. Looking ahead to the racing closer to Christmas, please join us for our BIG Christmas Show on Wednesday 21 December at 7pm.
The Irish airline Ryanair, owned by Gigginstown Chief Michael O ‘Leary will be sponsoring the 2016 World Hurdle for the first time replacing previous sponsor Ladbrokes. The new sponsors will have several leading contenders going in to this year’s renewal at Cheltenham Festival 2016, headed by Grade Two winner Alpha Des Obeaux. The Mouse Morris trained six year old ran some fine races as a novice last season, finishing second to Douvan in the Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle, finishing second to Nichols Canyon at Punchestown and travelling upside ante-post favourite and multiple Grade one winner Thistlecrack at the Grand National meeting, before falling. This season has seen two second place finishes by equal distances in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle behind Arctic Fire, and in the Christmas Hurdle behind another Gigginstown horse, Prince of Scars.
The latter race might not have been ideal for Alpha Des Obeaux, as the winner of that race is a horse that thrives on heavy ground, the registered going that day at Leopardstown. Prince of Scars is unbeaten this season but I feel his chance depends very much on a soft/heavy surface, something he will not get at Cheltenham unless a serious bout of bad weather arrives. I would be happier to side with Alpha Des Obeaux who won last time out at Gowran Park defeating two time place horse in the World Hurdle, At Fishers Cross and last year’s Albert Bartlett hero, Martello Tower.
Martello Tower has been well beaten and disappointing in two starts this term, but he did win an Albert Bartlett at last year’s festival, and I feel he is a horse who needs building up and a good couple of runs to get going, therefore you cannot write him off. Thistlecrack is without doubt many peoples banker of the week going in to Cheltenham Festival 2016. The Grade One he won at Aintree has worked out well form wise, with several of the runners in that race including Vyta Du Roc, Roi Des Francs and Blaklion cementing themselves as solid performers in the novice chase ranks heading to the big week in March. The Punchestown form when finishing second to Killultagh Vic is no disgrace as he was ante-post favourite for the JLT Novices Chase before injury ruled him out. Trainer Colin Tizzard is already talking up Thistlecrack as a potential novice Gold Cup runner next season.
This season has been nothing short of brilliant. In the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, Thistlecrack dispatched some very handy rivals including Grade One winner Whisper and reigning World Hurdle champion Cole Harden. Stepping up to Grade One level in his second start of the season in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot against course specialist Reve De Sivola and World Hurdle second Saphir Du Rheu, the rapidly improving eight year old ran out a wide margin winner, a performance which propelled him to ante-post favourite in the World Hurdle market. All eyes were on Thistlecrack for the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials day. Sent off 4/5 favourite, he ran a visually stunning race and skated home to be a wide margin winner yet again and silenced any doubts about handling the new course at Cheltenham. He is most certainly the horse they all have to beat.
Cole Harden is the reigning champion and his seasonal reappearance was satisfactory enough with a third place finish behind Thistlecrack. His second run of the season was over a trip arguably a bit on the short side for him nowadays, in the Relkeel Hurdle on Trials Day, with the Champion Hurdle bound Camping Ground victor that day. Cole Harden has solid form and his front running tactics will surely be employed, a formula which lead him to glory last year. He is a horse who loves the better ground. I expect a really bold showing from him this year again, although I feel he may be staring at the backside of one or two too good this time.
Paul Nicholls goes in to the Festival this year with no stand out chances for the first time in many years. The glory years of Masterminded, Denman, Kauto Star and four time champion Big Buck’s are now a distant memory and this year in this race he will be relying on the Andy Stewart owned grey Saphir Du Rheu and last year’s Coral Cup winner Aux Ptit Soins. Saphir Du Rheu finished runner up in the renewal of this race last year, then reverted back to his novice chase campaign, running out a Grade One winner at Aintree before returning to begin his season in the Hennessy Gold Cup, only finishing fifth. His run behind Thistlecrack at Ascot leaves him way behind the form needed to win a World Hurdle. I have major doubts about his wellbeing as he is arguably the most badly campaigned horse of the last five years along with the ill-fated Oscar Whisky.
Aux Ptit Soins has been off the track for a year and has only been seen once on UK shores, at last year’s Festival when he claimed a Coral Cup victory on his debut for Paul Nicholls. He is very much unexposed and yet to run in graded open company, so it would be a massive achievement if he could win a World Hurdle at this stage of his career. The Rich Ricci pair Vroum Vroum Mag and Annie Power are both entered and remain prominent in the betting, but the likely preferred target for Vroum Vroum Mag seems to be the OLBG Mares Hurdle. Annie Power looks likely to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle after the absence of Faugheen and Arctic Fire through injury. The likely other runners include Whisper, At Fishers Cross, Lieutenant Colonel and Bobs Worth.
I am strongly in the Thistlecrack camp. He is improving with every run and silenced any doubters with his win at Cheltenham last time out regarding course form. He seems to have all form lines covered in regards to the other potential runners. He is a banker for many of the week, myself included. A forgotten horse, a three time Festival winner lurks in the background. He beat Simonsig at Aintree earlier in the season and ran a cracker in the Hennessy off a big weight and ground that didn’t suit. He ran below par at Cheltenham last time out on a shorter than ideal trip in heavy ground. The drying ground and trip over his beloved hurdles could see Bobs Worth run in to a place on his Festival swansong.
Thistlecrack 5 pts win @ 11/10
Cole Harden 3 Pts win @ 3/1 w/o Thistlecrack market (Paddy Power)
Bobs Worth 1 pt e/w @ 40/1
Feature photo by Kerry Hendry of Love The Image Stephen Smith takes a look at the big races on each day of Cheltenham Festival 2014. We start off with a look at the big race on Tuesday 11 March, which is a hurdle race over 2 miles.
Stan James Champion Hurdle
In what promises to be the race of the Festival, Hurricane Fly seeks to repeat last year’s triumph and win a third Champion Hurdle crown. Willie Mullins promises to have his charge primed for the Tuesday showpiece, but many argue that they stare down the barrel of a who’s-who of new hurdling blood. Favouritism is shared with The New One, the precocious 2013 Neptune winner who aligns genuine two mile speed with a proven ability to power up the Cheltenham hill. Amid a season of setbacks, Nicky Henderson concedes his best chance across the festival may constitute the impressive My Tent or Yours. After defeating The New One this season, the 7/2 currently available is certainly tempting, with last year’s second behind Champagne Fever doing little to diminish this season’s credentials. However preference is for the talented Our Conor, so impressive in securing the 2013 Triumph Hurdle in blistering fashion. Whilst the form of that race hasn’t been covered in glory this term, the progression in his Irish performances shows enough promise to believe a reversal with Hurricane Fly is inevitable. Jezki has done little to convince he’s of the class to line up here and can be dismissed. Depending on conditions, Melodic Rendezvous could arrive on the scene but would require bottomless ground. Selection – Our Conor – 9/2 (Win) Next up is Ladies Day where off the track the brave and beautiful ladies will compete for the title of the ‘Most Stylish Lad’ and a first prize of £5000 of Joules vouchers. On the track the big race is a chase run at a furious pace over 2 miles.
BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase
With Sprinter Sacre being rested until next season, Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy is in pole position to pick up the considerable pieces on offer. Entering the race with a RPR of 174, it would appear that there’s no better two-miler in the country at the moment. Holes in his candidacy become gaping chasms under scrutiny. headlined by a defeat to Kid Cassidy in November, a horse who would surely have too much to find to win here. Ante Post gamblers have a few curveballs to negotiate here. Al Ferof’s disappointing comeback season has saw hints he could arrive here – heavy ground permitting. Connections of 2011 winner Sizing Europe are suddenly enthused by Sprinter Sacre’s withdrawl, but is the ability still there? No. The classiest animal in the race comes in the form of Willie Mullins Arvika Ligeonniere. The 11/2 on offer would be far shorter if his form went left-handed, but he’s oozed style and class too often not to contend here. Selection – Arvika Ligeonniere – 11/2 (Win) On Thursday, it’s the long distance hurdle Championship in which Big Bucks aims to win for an astonishing 5th time.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle
If the Champion Hurdle promises to be the race of the Festival, the showdown between Big Bucks & Willie Mullins champion-elect Annie Power won’t be far behind. After last year’s open renewal won by Solwhit, the 11 year old Big Bucks has it all to do to claim a historic fifth crown. With defeat tasted in his comeback, connections are still bullish on Paul Nicholls ability to get the great horse back to his imperious best. Regardless of the 2/1 being short, he could be 20/1 and opposable. He’s simply not demonstrated his ability and can’t be backed. But is Annie Power the heir apparent? Not for me. She’s beaten Zarkander twice this season, utilising a mares allowance. Those victories weren’t impressive enough to hand her the title, and has she peaked already? Memories of Pont Alexandre loom large and we should look elsewhere for the winner. A positive word is had for Rule The World, so impressive last year but has too much to find in this company. My idea of the winner is the horse described by some as the biggest disappointment of this season – At Fishers Cross. Rebecca Curtis has brought the horse back from a shaky start by beating Big Bucks in the Cleeve Hurdle, and has aimed the horse towards this race all year. The 6/1 is far too short considering his earlier season form, but the bookmakers sense the animal’s class. Selection – At Fishers Cross – 6/1 (Win) On Friday, it’s the week’s showpiece event and climax to the meeting where the best chasers from England and Ireland do battle to take the crown in Jump Racing’s Blue Riband event.
BetFred Cheltenham Gold Cup
Dubbed as the ‘cash machine’ by Cheltenham backers, Nicky Henderson looks to guide Bobs Worth to a second consecutive Gold Cup – and a sixth Cheltenham win on the bounce. Putting a disappointing Betfair Chase behind him, Henderson’s charge returned to form with a resounding Irish Lexus victory, seeing his price tumble into today’s 7/4. An out and out Cheltenham horse, bookmakers dread the consequences of a successful defence. The winner of an Albert Bartlett, RSA Chase and Gold Cup, it’s only the brave who would desert such a reliable animal. Braver still as this year’s renewal lacks the firepower of the last six years. With the withdrawals of Sir De Champs and Cue Card, Dynaste’s preference to go back in trip and Long Run’s capitulation, only Silviniaco Conti lays down a serious challenge. The King George winner dug deep to overhaul Cue Card that day, and while the Nicholls horse has no Cheltenham form, he lacks the obvious flaws that every other rival has. For me, Silviniaco Conti is the likely winner, but at a short 3/1 it’s a gamble which I won’t be making. Value lies elsewhere in a race that’s cutting up badly. Last week’s performance by Captain Chris has given hope that he’s the best he’s ever been. Groans are heard from those who remember his recent left-handed form, but the horse is an Arkle winner and has earned his RPR of 170. His price is being trimmed all the time, and the 14/1 available today is great value to finish on the premises. Selection – Captain Chris – 14/1 (E/W)
In our latest JPFestival.com TV Broadcast recorded on Monday 3 March, we preview the Stan James Champion Hurdle and the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival 2014. Watch below or on Google+ or YouTube. If you have any questions, opinions, comments or tips please post them below or tweet @JPFestival.