And so, the very pinnacle of the National Hunt season is upon us. From the raising of the white flag at 1:30 on Tuesday to the highlight of not just the week but the year, Friday’s Gold Cup, the general public, for perhaps one of the few times of the year shall be engrossed by horse racing. This column always gets excited in the weeks before the festival, places a series of foolproof bets and watches as the wheels inevitably come off. Still like a hopeless romantic we return each year safe in the knowledge that we’ve learned from our mistakes and the hours spent studying completely differing opinions will come to fruition. We’ll provide our highly uneducated thoughts, a preview of sorts, on a daily basis in advance of the following day’s racing, with an emphasis on the feature race of each day. This is not, we repeat not an in-depth analysis of the betting markets, more a background to the big races, with a few value bets recommended.
With so many previews appearing this week, Straight Up Sport has decided to provide a slightly less scientific approach in proposing some gambling tips this week.
Firstly, as last year was a success we’re going to apply the short term memory rule and erase the years of abject failure to the scrap yard of history. We won last year therefore we’re definitely on a hot streak.
For the very casual gambler who likes a couple of euro each way you can a do a lot worse than adhering to the ‘if in doubt back Ruby Walsh’ Rule. Similar rules apply to AP McCoy and Barry Geraghty. Emotion or more specifically sentimentality will get the better of many punters this week so only choose the AP route if you think he’s going to win the race. While the world and its mother know the Antrim man is bowing out shortly, the chances are, though I could well be proven wrong, that the horses don’t.
Another trick we suggest is that once you’ve made your bet presume the money is lost. Thereafter, if the horse comes home in first it’ll feel like you’ve won not just the bet but also the few quid which you already thought you’d pissed away into the wind. Remember, most importantly, never to chase your losses. You could end up in a worse hole than the one Alice fell through.
There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of Cheltenham previews each year. The men and women providing these punting tips are clearly well versed in the game but remember not all of them can be right. In fact, invariably, the majority will be completely wrong.
If you read a number of previews and one or two horses keep appearing, particularly ones at a bigger price, then chances are you should be getting involved there. If however you enjoy the slightly more unconventional method of picking a horse because you like the sound of the name then by all means go for it. This reminds us of the 2013 festival when Our Conor, who tragically died in last year’s Champion Hurdle, romped home in the Triumph Hurdle at a fairly tasty price of 5/1. While contentedly collecting our modest winnings, we overheard a lady saying to the bookmaker “Oh, I only backed him (Our Conor) because we have Conor at home”. To which the bookmaker, whose pockets had just become considerably lighter, replied, extremely deadpan, “Seems like half the town has a Conor at home”.
Tuesday 10th March – Feature Race: Champion Hurdle
If you happen to have a relative called Un de Sceaux or Faugheen at home then this could be your lucky week.
The former lines up in the Arkle Trophy tomorrow, a race for novice chasers, over the minimum of two miles odd. Chasers for the uninitiated, race over fences as opposed to the smaller hurdles. These are the prospective Usain Bolts of chasing and the winner tomorrow will likely go on to contest the Queen Mother Champion Chase at next year’s festival.
We think Un de Sceaux is very hard to oppose but at an extremely short price, 4/7 generally, we won’t be going near him. He should open Willie Mullins account for the festival, but we like Josses Hill, admittedly disappointing this season to repeat his performance in last year’s Supremes Novices Hurdle and run into the places at a big price. Mullins incidentally sends perhaps his strongest ever team to the Cotswolds. Faugheen, Un De Sceaux and Vautour are among only a handful of National Hunt racing’s equivalent of the all-conquering Barcelona side of 2011.
We move to the Champion Hurdle, the highlight of Tuesday’s racing, and for some the whole festival. This is hurdling’s grand prize, the most anticipated race of the week after the Gold Cup. This is a race that has produced plenty of Irish winners, most notably the legendary Istabraq, who won three on the bounce for Charlie Swan and Aidan O’ Brien, from 1998-2000. Last year, the Jessica Harrington trained Jezki, given a fantastic ride by Barry Geraghty, enjoyed a narrow victory over My Tent or Yours. The latter incidentally is out of this year’s renewal due to injury. Tomorrow sees Willie Mullins’ Faugheen, winner of last year’s Neptune Novices Hurdle, lining up as the hot favourite. You may have noticed that there’s a theme forming here. Against the better judgment of far wiser people, we’re recommending last year’s third placed, The New One to be first past the post tomorrow. Hampered badly last year when Our Conor tragically and fatally fell, six from home, Sam Twiston Davies mount came home like the TGV and finished just three lengths back of the eventual winner. We agree that Jezki, the reigning champion doesn’t get enough respect and that Faugheen justifiably merits favouritism. However, The New One has experience in the race and you sense the Twiston Davies team will be desperate to succeed following last year’s unfortunate sequence of events.
It would be remiss of us to preview this race without mention of the absolute superstar that is Hurricane Fly. The ‘Fly, also trained by Mullins, has had an incredible career, winning tomorrow’s race twice (2011 and 2013) and incredibly is unbeaten in his ten runs at Leopardstown. This counts for little this week though in what is likely to be his Cheltenham swansong. Should Paul Townend somehow steer the 11-year-old to success tomorrow afternoon Cheltenham will shake to its very foundations. However Ruby Walsh, top dog in Willie Mullins yard, chooses Faugheen over his old friend tomorrow. The ‘Fly won’t take offence though. Business is business. And should he finish in the places, more likely if there’s some give in the ground, that will be an achievement in itself. We’d be delighted if we were eating our words come this time tomorrow but frankly we feel this would be one fairytale finish too many. Still, given his ludicrous success; he’s a twenty-two-time Grade 1 winner; we doubt there are many who’d complain if they prepared a golden stable for Hurricane Fly in the Hall of Fame.
To the best of the rest on Tuesday. We are advised by a well-informed friend of Straight Up Sport that Harry Fry’s Jollyallan, ‘a proper animal’ to quote our associate may well overcome Willie Mullins’ well fancied favourite, Douvan in the Festival opener, the Supreme Novices Hurdle. AP McCoy should be on board so what better way for him to commence his final Cheltenham Festival.
The legendary Quevaga, the undisputed, widely adored queen of Cheltenham for the last six seasons won’t be with us this year having retired after last year’s festival. She became the only horse to win at six successive Cheltenham festivals. Her absence hasn’t exactly thrown open the field in the Mares Hurdle though, as stablemate Annie Power, narrowly beaten by More of That in last year’s World Hurdle, aims to take up the mantle of the best mare in town. She’s a class apart from anything else in the field, but she’s been out since the autumn, without a tune up before tomorrow’s race. Willie Mullins would never run an unfit horse but still it will be interesting to see how she reacts to her lengthy, enforced break. We like Barry Geraghty’s likely mount, Polly Peachum, as an each way bet. Now we are completely contradicting ourselves here as the 10/1 shot pulled up on her last outing at Kempton but it has been reported by connections that there was no lasting injury or effect from that particular day. Trainer Nicky Henderson, a master at getting his horses in tip top shape for Cheltenham, said last week that she’s fresh and ready to go.
Tuesdays Picks (We will forecast our top three for the feature race each day)
1:30 -Supreme Novices Hurdle – Jollyallan e/w at 8/1
2:05 – Arkle Trophy – Josses Hill e/w at 10/1
3:20 – Champion Hurdle
1. The New One
4:00 – Mares Hurdle – Polly Peachum e/w at 10/1
Before the Festival starts here are our four picks for the week, one from each day, which we’ll combine in a €1 e/w accumulator, on the off chance that the stars align and everything falls into place. There’s only one favourite in this selection so ‘caveat emptor’. In fact, the likelihood of all four winning works out a little bit north of 3600/1 so we’ll leave you good reader to use your own judgment here.
Tuesday – Supreme Novices Hurdle – Jollyallan (8/1)
Wednesday – Neptune Novices Hurdle – Nichols Canyon (4/1)
Thursday – Ryanair Chase – Hidden Cyclone (8/1)
Friday – Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle – Martello Tower (10/1)
And, even if you don’t gamble so much as a red cent this week we implore you to take in the Festival, particularly the blue riband event, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the pinnacle of the national hunt season. Those who witnessed last year’s renewal were treated to one of the most dramatic finishes in the illustrious event’s storied history, a live stewards inquiry eventually seeing Lord Windermere named winner in rather controversial circumstances. Be sure to watch this year as the most breathtakingly fearless and talented men, women and, of course, horses in the business vie for glory on the greatest stage of them all.