All the talking has stopped and it’s time for action.
This is the place that all fans of jumps racing want to be at, but as a jockey it’s important not to get caught up in the bubble.
You nearly have to distance yourself from the occasion and just concentrate on getting the job done. There’s a lot of distractions around Cheltenham week and that’s why experienced guys like Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell are always worth having on your side.
The horses too have to show they’ve got what it takes. They’ll need to adapt to the pace and rhythm of the races, have tactical speed and be brave enough to jump blind at hurdles or fences with a wall of horses in front of them. I’ll always favour previous winning form at the Festival – even over recent form – as it’s such a unique test.
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I know Ruby Walsh has gone for Melon and that’s a fair endorsement over stable-mate Bunk Off Early, but the opening-race favourite is not for me. Perhaps it’s too easy to dismiss him when compared to previous winners Vautour or Douvan as the race has now cut up a lot. I was gutted though that Neon Wolf has switched to the Neptune Novices Hurdle on Wednesday. I was on him at 40/1 for this – even if it was to small money.
There’s more value in the field than the favourite. Ballyandy ticks more boxes than Melon for me. He was a good winner of the Champion bumper last year and won well in the Betfair Hurdle. He’s experienced in a big-race field, while Melon has had just one start over hurdles.
As an each-way price I like River Wylde. He’s a good jumper and is unbeaten in his last three starts.
I want to see Altior win this well and set up the clash of champions next season with Douvan (who runs in Wednesday’s Champion Chase). This race is all about the favourite and on his performances this year he just needs normal luck to get around safely, show his class and win. He was a run-away winner of the Supreme Novices Hurdle last year so ticks the Festival winner box in a big way.
For an interest bet, I’d have A Hare’s Breath without the favourite. He might just be able to creep away and pick these off up Cleeve Hill by coming home strongly.
The top-weights can proves their class in the first handicap of the day. Gordon Elliott’s Noble Endeavor has some nice form in the book having won the Paddy Power Chase at Leoparsdrown. He heads the market. However, I like last year’s winner Un Temps Pour Tout. He’s gone up 8lbs for that victory, but he travelled so well through the race 12 months ago, I’ll chance him again to run another big race.
I’m a fan of Yanworth, but my main worry about him is his jumping. He’s been sloppy in his last two starts – particularly at Wincanton. Apparently he wasn’t 100 per cent that day, but he’ll need to have his ‘A’ game on Tuesday and will have to hurdle a lot slicker.
Mark Walsh takes over from Barry Geraghty in the saddle but I’ve no concerns about that. I’d have my last fiver on Mark Walsh as a jockey as he’s very, very capable and Yanworth won’t be beaten because of the man on top.
Late switcher Moon Racer deserves a shot at the big time. He’s such a fragile horse if they have him right, there are entitled to go for the big prize.
The softer the ground the better for Buever D’Air. Petit Mouchoir will be doing all the donkey work up front for the others and that could play into the hands of these value plays, My Tent or Yours and The New One. People forget My Tent or Yours was second to Annie Power last year and to Jezki in 2014. As for the New One, this is the weakest Champion Hurdle he’s ever run in.
Ruby Walsh will have a lot of choices this week and there’s a strong chance that he’ll get a couple wrong. He’s opted for Limini over last year’s winner Vroum Vroum Mag and you can’t ignore that. Limini beat Apple’s Jade handily the last time so it all points to the favourite.
I’m going to go off piste here with Arpege D’alene, as nothing bar the favourite A Genie in Abottle, jumps out at me. Paul Nicholls runner is a bit of a monkey but this is his type of race.
He had the Pertemps Final won last year but wandered around like a drunk on Cheltenham high street at 2am and got collared by Mall Dini close home. He’s a good jockey on board who can smuggle him around.
He was beaten at odds on in the Reynoldstown at Ascot last time but Minella Rocco was placed in that 12 months ago, before claiming this race.
Hammersly Lake finished sixth in the Coral Cup last year and is rated 4lbs lower over fences. His form has been pretty consistent all season and the drying ground will help him.