It’s three weeks to the Cheltenham Festival and it’s beginning to get real.
Maybe I’m a cynic, but I find myself wanting to take on favourites at every juncture possible and without sounding like the grinch of Gloucestershire, there’s a real joy in not settling for the easy answer when it pays off.
Maybe it’s a health issue that a trainer isn’t quick to disclose – or maybe it’s just a lot of unexposed types in behind a mount with some flashy visuals. It might even be something you’ve read about being impressive on the clock but won’t take to the undulations at Cheltenham.
Just as much can go wrong as go right, so here are the three flimsy favourites I’m taking on at Prestbury Park.
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Mares Hurdle – Honeysuckle
16:10, March 14th
I’d be the happiest man in the world if the dual Champion Hurdler arrived here and hosed up, but I find it hard to see. She was good in defeat behind State Man in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but her years seem to be catching up with her, despite our sentiments.
If Marie’s Rock does go here instead of taking her chance against the geldings in the Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle, she should be bang there again. And while Nicky Henderson initially omitted 2020 Champion Hurdle winner Epatante from the entries – she can be supplemented while Willie Mullins’ Brandy Love’s ability is undeniable – despite her temperament being unpredictable – is edging ever closer to a comeback run.
Mullins gave a big mention to Echoes in Rain – a live contender for a Champion Hurdle two years ago – suggesting we forget her 2022 campaign because she’s better than that. Throw Love Envoi, Shewearsitwell, Queens Brook and even previous winner Tellmesomethinggirl into the mix and you’ve got yourself a horse race.
The fact Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander is so keen to switch her out means they’re not convinced she retains her old sparkle against the crack two mile speedsters – 7lb weight for age allowance or not. For me though, if she’s not up to running in a shallow Champion Hurdle, then I really don’t know if she has it in her to win this renewal of talented mares.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle – Hermes Allen
13:30, March 15th
Cheltenham has developed some trends in the last few years. Paul Nicholls having a Denman replica is one of them and they generally end up being well-fancied in the Ballymore before being turned over by an Irish runner much to the surprise of absolutely no-one.
Stage Star was pulled up before the last obstacle this time last year. Bob Olinger sent Bravemansgame out the back of the telly the year before. And excuse me for reading the tea leaves here, but I have a funny feeling Hermes Allen is going to complete the hat-trick.
Willie Mullins alluded in a recent stable tour to sending Impaire Et Passe to Wednesday’s Ballymore Hurdle despite typically sending his Punchestown ‘Moscow Flyer’ winner to the Supreme Novices Hurdle. He’d be my idea of one to upset the favourite.
Even forgetting Impaire Et Passe, Gaelic Warrior is no back number. He was beaten a short head by Brazil in the Boodles Hurdle last year, but looks tailor-made for this 2m 5f trip. His demolition of the field last time in a valuable Leopardstown handicap suggests he’s even better than his revised 153 rating and puts him right in the mix.
If another Mullins’ inmate, Champ Kiely, turns up here, you’ve got a Lawlor’s of Naas winner o reckon with. Meanwhile, if trainer comments were the be-all and end-all then Good Land will have won this before flag-fall.
Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle – Blazing Khal
15:30, March 16th
In terms of depth, you might well be stuck to find a deeper race at the Cheltenham Festival than the Paddy Power Stayers Hurdle and that feels like quite a constant. Not since Big Buck’s have we had a real headliner in this division because three-mile stayers went out of fashion. And apart from that, they’re quite quirky animals to begin with.
You need only think of the winner of this race each of the last two years – Flooring Porter – who gets out in front and Danny Mullins gets his pace judgement absolutely spot on. It’s quite a feat to win a Stayers from the front and nobody seemed to have learned their lesson from 2021.
Lisgnagar Oscar won this race at 50/1 the year before, and Penhill incredibly won this race despite it being his seasonal debut back in 2018.There just isn’t a blueprint to find a winner of this race.
So for Blazing Khal to be as short as he is right now feels like a real groupthink to latch onto a favourite at a respectable enough price. My argument is that it’s not respectable enough.
Likely to line up against him is not just Flooring Porter who’s coming back from a layoff, but 15-length winner of the Galmoy Hurdle Teahupoo, who looks the most improved of all these, Paisley Park who can turn in a performance in the mid-160s seemingly out of nowhere – as well as the potential of Cheltenham winner Marie’s Rock and potentially a French raider in Gold Tweet.
Do you know why that’s the longest paragraph you’ve ever read on this website? Because this a stacked field.
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