Charlie Austin v Mick Fitzgerald: A Premier League star and a racing pundit go head-to-head to pick out the best bets for the Cheltenham Festival

The ITV Racing guru takes on the Southampton striker who delivered a 1000/1 acca at Cheltenham last year. Something's gotta give ....

Mick Fitz v Charlie Austin H2H

Tuesday, March 14

Supreme Novices Hurdle, 1.30pm

CHARLIE AUSTIN: The key to this race is where Neon Wolf ends up. For me – he has to go to the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle and that opens it right up for my pick, Melon. Everyone is saying he’s over-rated, he’s over-hyped and he only beat Broken Soul at Leopardstown with that form looking weak. So? The fact is he won by 10 lengths. He beat what was in front of him – that’s all you can do. Hopefully he can be the first of a few winners next week after last year’s bounty.

MICK FITZGERALD: I really fancy Neon Wolf  for this but he’s also entered in Wednesday’s Neptune Hurdle. I love his attitude and if the ground has some ‘soft’ in the description for the Festival opener will take some beating.

Champion Hurdle, 3.30pm

CA: I’m a big fan of Brain Power at an each-way price. Moon Racer is likely to go in the Supreme, and I’m not a fan of Yanworth. I’m happy to oppose. Petit Mouchoir got a peach of a ride of David Mullins to win the Irish Champion Hurdle in January, but everything went right for him that day. Nicky Henderson will have Brain Power in top shape at the Festival and he can follow up his Grade 3 success at Ascot.

MF: The Champion is a puzzle. I love Alan King’s Yanworth but I am worried that if he doesn’t brush up his jumping it will cost him the race. However, if he gets that right under new pilot Mark Walsh, his stamina can see him come home well.

Wednesday, March 15

Neptune Novices Hurdle, 1.30pm

MF: Willie Mullins’ Bacardys was a good winner at Leopardstown last time out and looks primed to go well here. He was third to Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper here last year and then reversed the form at Aintree. He’ll appreciate the step up in trip too.

CA: If Neon Wolf runs in this race, he’ll win. No question. I saw him win a National Hunt Flat race at Uttoxeter in December in awful and thought to myself, this is some horse. He’s living up to his hype. Harry Fry is a top trainer and he has a seriously special horse on his hands.

RSA Chase, 2.10pm

MF: Losing American from the race means we’ve lost one of the best jumpers in the field, but Harry Fry is right if he thinks the ground will be too dry for him. My other fancy, Acapello Bourgeois, is in a similar situation, in that he needs some dig in the ground to show his best, but is a strong galloper and crucially, jumps well. If Sandra Hughes lets him run, he’ll be a player.

CA: I would have sided with American had he run because I love the way he attacks his fences – unfortunately the ground is against him. Instead I’m opting for an each-way stab at Royal Vacation for Colin Tizzard. He was a seriosuly impressive winner of the Kauto Star Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day (beating Virgilio by 12 lengths) and he proved he has plenty of stamina by staying on up the hill to win the Timeform Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in January.

Thursday, March 16

Ryanair Chase, 2.50pm

CA: There are big questions over Un De Sceaux make no bones about it. They did a wonderful job getting Sprinter Sacre back to his best at last year’s Festival but Un De Sceaux should have been able to go with him, and he just couldn’t. To make it worse he was beaten 15 lengths by Sprinter a month later. His jumping never convinces me and I couldn’t back him with any confidence.

I’m going for Uxiandre. He won this race in 2015 for AP McCoy in the season the Champ retired and then we didn’t see him for 22 months. He returned to the track in January in the Clarence House at Cheltenham and went down five lengths to Un De Sceaux but he will have needed that run. With that under his belt he can reverse the form.

MF: Another chance for Michael O’ Leary to bank some of his own cash as he’s yet to win the race his company sponsors. Empire Of Dirt was being talked about as a Gold Cup horse but diverts to here instead. He was a very good winner of the Brown Advisory Plate handicap at last year’s Festival and I fancy him strongly.

Stayers Hurdle, 3.30pm

CH: Uknowhatimeanharry is going to be a super-short price but you can’t oppose him. He’s banker material.

I love Cole Harden after I tipped him up and backed him for this race two years ago. You know he’ll give 110 per cent and he’s a price. He puts his heart on the line, pumps his chest out, and gives everything. Can he go from the front and run them into the ground again? It’s just hard to go against Unowhatimeanharry because he is all class.

MF: Course form counts for so much at Cheltenham and the favourite, Uknowhatimeanharry was another winner her last year when landing the Pertemps Final.

He’s on a long unbeaten run, has impressed with every start this this season and will be tough to beat.

Friday, March 17

Albert Bartlett, 2.50pm

MF: One of the Irish ‘bankers’, Death Duty goes in this and will be very tough to beat. He’s highly thought of by his trainer Gordon Elliott and can show his class.

CA: Death Duty should run here and win. The vibes I’m hearing are that this is one of Gordon Elliot’s bankers of the meeting. Augusta Kate went down when challenging Death Duty at Naas in January, but you have to clear your hurdles. Death Duty did that and won. He can go in again on Friday.

Cheltenham Gold Cup, Friday 3.30pm

MF: I would love to see Cue Card win on St Patrick’s Day and right the wrong of last year, when he fell three out. However, his stable mate Native River is a strong stayer who was really unlucky not to have won the 4m amateur race last season. He gets my vote  – just, ahead of the Ruby Walsh-ridden Djakadam who has been placed in the last two Gold Cups. He’s had a smoother preparation though this year.

CA: Thistlecrack’s injury throws this race wide open, but I’m with Native River.

I backed Native River to win the Hennessy, I backed him to win the Welsh National, and I’m backing him again here. I was at Newbury to watch him win the Denman Chase and the way he jumped to the front was amazing. He’s the one to beat.

I backed Don Cossack last year and am convinced Cue Card wouldn’t have got to him. You have to jump the fences. Simple as that. Native River has no problems jumping and I’ll all over him. The worry is Djakadam. Second in the last two Gold Cups, can he finally go one better and win it for Rich Ricci? He’ll definitely go close but those two Gold Cup runs may have taken it out of him.

It’s 17 years since Johnson won the Gold Cup on Looks like Trouble. He’s due another one and Native River can give it to him.

Best Handicapped Horse

CA: I’m under pressure here after Diego Du Charmil last year! I’m a fan of Baron Alco in the Brown Advisory Plate. He came second at Sandown behind Top Notch, but Top Notch is no slouch. Baron Alco has improved as a chaser and can make the frame at a price.

MF: I’m all over last year’s Pertemps Final winner Mall Dini. He’s yet to get his head in front this season but he hasn’t been out of the top three either. He looks a serious player in the 3m 1f Kim Muir Challenge Cup on Thursday.