It’s time for the talking to stop and the action to start as the famous roar goes up at 1.30pm for the first race of Cheltenham 2019.
However, the Festival is no place for the faint-hearted – it’s where Champions are crowned and lofty reputations can be destroyed. And it’s also about finding winners so here goes.
One of the biggest surprises here is that the favourite Al Dancer won’t be wearing his customary hood and is wearing earplugs instead to keep him calm. He looked good when winning the Betfair Hurdle and with that big-field handicap experience under his belt, he is a worthy favourite. It seems odd not to be talking about a Willie Mullins’ hotpot in the opener but he does have a couple of lively chances and has opted to run Leopardstown Grade One winner Klassical Dream here, now the rain has arrived to help his cause.
I have backed the four-year-old Fakir D’oudairies, who gets 8lbs from the older horses. I was really impressed with him when he won at the course in January and he stays well, which is exactly what you will need.
Nicky Henderson has two entered with Nico de Boinville electing to ride Angels Breath over Mr Fisher. Nicky is adamant that we did not see the best of Angels Breath at Kempton, they felt he blew up and needed the experience. He left the choice to Nico, but thought he had made the right call riding Angels Breath at a Cheltenham preview after racing at Sandown on Saturday. I was taken with the run and win of Mr Fisher at Kempton at Christmas.
However I am happy to stick with Fakir D’oudairies to get the Festival off to a flyer.
Sometimes you have to trust your eyes and that is what I keep having to tell myself about Lalor. He was really impressive earlier in the season at Cheltenham beating horses who have boosted the form since. The worry is that his run after that is nowhere near good enough to win an Arkle Chase.
Glen Forsa is trained by former Southampton and England footballing legend, Mick Channon. This lad has really taken this division by storm after starting out over three miles at Chepstow. You won’t see a novice jump better than him and when you add in his stamina – he’s got a lot going for him. Many of these runners will be going flat out from the start, so there is the danger of an upset, if something comes from behind to pounce late on.
I am going to stick with Lalor though to confirm the impression he made earlier in the season.
I’m a great believer in the ‘horses for courses’ theory at the Festival and there’s plenty of previous winners in this field. Mr Whitaker won over a shorter trip here last year and was rated 14lbs lower, but has looked like he really needs this longer trip now. Coo Star Sivola was a good winner of this contest last season and is only 3lbs higher now. Jonjo O’Neill’s Minella Rocco was placed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup once, but has looked like he has lost his way over fences even though he did put in a good run over hurdles last time.
Plenty have chance but I’m siding with Coo Star Sivola to win again.
The feature race on day one is an absolute belter. I love the reigning champions and Buveur D’air has won the last two editions. He’ll join See You Then and Istabraq as a three-time winner if he triumphs on Tuesday.
I have been really impressed with Apple’s Jade this season. The time of her win at Leopardstown was off the charts. She ran the two-mile trip four seconds faster than the handicap on the card over the same trip! Four seconds is equal to around 15 to 20 lengths! One slight negative is that she was beaten here last year when she was ‘in season’.
Laurina comes here off the back of two facile wins in mare’s races. This is her first proper test against the boys. Her jumping is nowhere near as slick as Buveur D’air or Apple’s Jade and she looks more of a chaser than a hurdler.
Melon is the one to keep an eye on in the betting as he was really well punted last year on the day and nearly puled off a shock. He hasn’t shone this year yet but he could certainly be one to back in the place market, as he will be ridden cold to pick up the pieces.
I’m sticking with Buveur D’air to get the job done.
Benie Des Dieux was the benefactor last year when Apple’s Jade under-performed. Both her trainer and jockey, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have said that she represents their best chance of a winner all week. She will start a short-priced favourite.
I actually fancy her stablemate Limini as a bit of each-way value.
It’s hard not to be with one of the Irish horses who have a strong hand here. My two against the field are Tower Bridge and A Plus Tard. The former ran well in last year’s Albert Bartlett novice hurdle and also at Aintree. The worry is that this 2m 4f trip may not be enough of a test of stamina for him – although he does look well handicapped. My preference is for Henry de Bromhead’s A Plus Tard. He won at Naas and ran a good race at Punchestown when second to Winter Escape.
The rain is a big help to him and he could give Rachael Blackmore her first Festival winner.
This race is all about OK Corral. If he settles and puts in a clear round of jumping he will win comfortably! The worry on what we saw at Warwick is that he may be a little keen and if he pulls too hard over four miles he will struggle.
However , he does have one of the best amateur jockeys on board in Derek O’Connor who will be creeping away on him for the first circuit, keeping him out of harm’s way. The Paul Nolan-trained Discorama was upsides Ballyward when falling at the final fence and could be an each-way play in the race as a back-up.
I fancy OK Corral strongly though to deliver.