The Cheltenham Festival is just a few weeks away and, as ever, it offers a veritable smorgasbord of delights for National Hunt fans from both sides of the Irish Sea and beyond. This year’s four-day Festival takes place from Tuesday 13th to Friday 16th March inclusively – with 28 top class races – half of which are Grade 1 events.
There’s one outstanding race each day starting with the Champion Hurdle on the Tuesday, Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday, the World Hurdle on Thursday, then the blue riband event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday at 3.20.
Quite simply, this is where it’s at for jumps racing.
It’s Wimbledon, Wembley, the World Cup and Olympic Games all rolled into one for fans of the sport – which is why the Prestbury Park course will play host to more than over 200,000 racegoers from the UK, Ireland and other parts of the world over the four days.
A whopping £500 million will be gambled over the four days – but what will it be gambled on and – more to the point – what should it be wagered on?
Well, here are five fancies that should not only give you a decent run for your money – but should also do so at too generous a price…
Let’s start with the biggest of the lot, the Gold Cup itself. Native River looks the standout value here at 6-1 following his successful reappearance in the Betfair Denman Chase on February 10th. This was a pretty emphatic performance after the better part of a year off the track. Native River pulled easily clear of Cloudy Dream and Saphir Du Rheu to win by 12 lengths.
His previous win had come in the same race 12 months ago but the eight year-old hadn’t raced since last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup when he finished a highly creditable third to Sizing John (currently 6-1 for this year’s race) and Minella Rocco (now 14-1 for the 2018 race).
It’s of particular note to shrewd punters that Native River had a ligament problem following last year’s race according to trainer Colin Tizzard. Now a year older and of prime Gold Cup winning age at eight, he clearly has no lingering problems. The experienced trainer looks to have perfected the horse’s preparation for the main event on March 16th. Despite his notable success in recent years, Tizzard is still to train a Gold Cup winner – something he will surely be doing his utmost to correct, and Native River looks to have a fighting chance of achieving that goal. He was only beaten a couple of lengths in the big race last year and stayed on gamely up the stamina sapping Cheltenham hill.
Of course, he’ll have a stiff task on his hands against last year’s winner Sizing John and Nicky Henderson’s all-conquering 3-1 favourite Might Bite, but 6-1 still looks an excellent value bet.
It would have been hard to believe that Faugheen would be available to back at 13/2 for the first Championship race of the Festival after his winning return in Grade 1 company in November, but his two disappointing subsequent efforts have given the layers encouragement.
While his pulled-up effort at Leopardstown between Christmas and New Year was admittedly disappointing, his second in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out was a far more encouraging effort.
If there’s more improvement to come and that race has been used as a stepping stone for National Hunt racing’s blue riband meeting, then he’s more than capable of serving it up to the odds-on jolly that is Buveur D’air.
Nicky Henderson’s charge is certainly worthy of respect in his bid for back to back successes in the race, but it was quite plain to see that last year’s renewal wasn’t the strongest with the likes of the ageing My Tent Or Yours and The New One placed in behind.
There’s question marks over when Faugheen can back to his best, but he could hardly be in better hands with the Mullins team and the price disparity between the pair looks too big at present.
The JP McManus-owned, Paul Nicholls-trained Movewiththetimes has successfully negotiated the Cheltenham obstacles twice in his career, most recently in December’s 2m5f Ryman Novices’ Chase. Finishing third of four behind Neil Mulholland’s Kalondra, the 7-year-old didn’t exactly jump fluently, but the ever-astute Nicholls says the horse is still too green. There is clearly a lot better to come at some point, but the market doesn’t think that will happen in the Arkle this time – which is why the horse is a massive 20-1 shot.
This may be the stuff of whimsical fancy, but it may also be that the Arkle just lands right for him. He was only beaten 2¼ lengths in the Steel Plate and Sections Novices’ Chase over 2m4½f at Cheltenham in November and gave Colin Tizzard’s highly-rated Finian’s Oscar a real run for his money. On that form, he has a chance.
And it’s a distinct possibility he’ll be well suited to the two-mile Arkle if Nicholls gives him a chance. He’s a strong improving sort, he’s in some of the most capable hands there are in National Hunt racing, and a strong gallop over the shorter trip could just bring out the best in him and his wayward jumping. At 20-1, he’s certainly worth an each-way punt on a “with a run” basis if you can.
Paul Nicholls’ seven-year old Black Corton has done little wrong in his career so far – culminating in a fine win in the Grade 1 32Red Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. This was the horse’s 11th win from 17 starts under Nicholls’ keen stewardship and all the more memorable as it was only the second time in history that a female jockey had landed a Grade 1 event over obstacles. The 22-year old Bryony Frost repeated Lizzie Kelly’s achievement in the same race from two years earlier. And it looks like she and Black Corton may well repeat that success at Cheltenham.
The three-mile RSA at Cheltenham, for which he’s a 14-1 chance at the time of writing, shouldn’t find Black Corton wanting. He was never out of the first two at Kempton and though tired at the finish, comfortably held off the dogged challenge from Colin Tizzard’s Elegant Escape (currently a 16-1 chance for the RSA). He’d also deftly side-stepped the falling Fountains Windfall four out.
He’s proved he’s happy at Cheltenham winning the Class 2 3m½f mallardjewellers.com Novices’ Chase at the course in November with Ballyoptic four lengths away in second.
His remarkable run continued with an all the way success in a Grade 2 at Ascot on Saturday (17/02) and with course form at Cheltenham in the bag, he looks too big at double figure odds.
Altior is quite rightly odds-on for the 2018 renewal of the Queen Mother Champion Chase but with Nicky Henderson’s new stable-star taking up a big chunk of the market, there’s some each-way value at bigger prices and none more so than Special Tiara at double figure odds.
The veteran held off Fox Norton in game fashion to win last year’s renewal of the race and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise if he was the first horse since Master Minded to land back-to-back renewals for a trainer targeting his third success in the race.
The son of Kayf Tara has been below par in three outings this winter, but as his form last season suggests, he’s better horse when he gets on a quicker surface. His course and distance form will also hold him in good stead against less experienced rivals and he’s sure to be reunited with last year’s winning jockey, Noel Fehily.
They will make a bold bid from the front once again this year and given there’s not a whole lot of pace in the race, he could get things all his own way on the front end.
There’s a suspicion he’s become something of a forgotten horse after his efforts in unsuitable conditions this campaign, but he wasn’t that far behind the highly regarded Min last time out, and if he builds on that and improves for the faster ground, it will be hard for his rivals to keep him out of the first three home. He looks the each-way play, available to back at 16/1.
So there we are; five great value bets for the Cheltenham Festival and, with any luck, an each-way “Canadian” (10 doubles, 10 trebles, 5 four-fold’s and a five-fold accumulator) will either pay a handsome dividend – or at least give punters some entertainment during the greatest National Hunt racing spectacular there is.