Cheltenham Festival 2015

Glorious Start for Mullins

Day one in the books and what a day it was! Willie Mullins came to the Cotswolds with what many believed to be his strongest team ever. Bookmakers feared Mullins four big guns Douvan, Un de Sceaux, Faugheen and the heiress apparent to Quevaga’s thrown, Annie Power. By the time the Mares Hurdle came round Mullins’ favourites had all done the business meaning an Annie Power victory would take down the betting industry to the tune of a reputed €50 million. We know the story by now, probably what bookmakers regard a fairytale ending. Ruby Walsh’s mount, the roasting hot favourite, blundered at the last and came down, horse and rider thankfully safe, as it was a nasty looking spill. With the dreams of thousands of punters left in tatters, Polly Peachum and Glens Melody were left to battle out a thrilling if anti-climatic race to the line, the latter winning by a short head. Such is the nature of the game that bookmakers the length and breadth of Ireland and the U.K. will have breath a sigh of relief when the mare came down. By all accounts, when Annie and Ruby came unstuck, an initial terrified silence was followed by a collective groan, with the life, and probably already banked winnings of thousands of disgruntled punters sucked out into the Gloucestershire evening. So, Ruby’s four timer was denied but jockey and horse are in fine fettle and that, at the end of the day, when the money is won and lost, is what really matters.

We shan’t dwell too long on the results of the opening day as we more look forward to what’s coming this afternoon. Douvan and then Un de Sceaux, the latter ‘a pure freak’ in his trainers words, opened the account for the Mullins Walsh tandem in the Supreme Novices Hurdle and Arkle Trophy respectively. Barry Geraghty had the temerity to interrupt the Closutton victory parade with a fantastic ride on Neil Mullholland’s charge, The Druid’s Nephew to take the Handicap Chase. Normal service was soon resumed though. Ruby and the much-touted machine, Faugheen, were absolutely majestic in winning the Champion Hurdle, leading home stable mates Arctic Fire and the aging but irrepressible Hurricane Fly to give the Co Carlow based trainer what must have been one of the greatest days in his illustrious training career. Glen’s Melody will have added a somewhat surprising cherry on top for the champion trainer and a popular victory for Paul Townend.

For those of you who listened, and we’d be surprised if you did, Josses Hill and the aforementioned Polly Peachum were good each way selections though life could have been so much prettier if not for the latter coming up just short. Anyway we’ve come out of the day unscathed, Cause of Causes helping plenty of lost causes, and with a little in the war chest for today. Let’s have a look at day two of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.

Wednesday 11th March 2015 – Feature Race: Queen Mother Champion Chase

Today’s proceedings get under way with the Neptune Novices Hurdle, a race won last year by the star of today’s show, Faugheen.  You’ll never believe this, but the favourites come from the yard of…….. Willie Mullins. Outlander and Nichols Canyon head the markets, closely followed by Dermot Weld’s Windsor Park. Outlander last defeated Martello Tower, who we like for Friday’s Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle so the former’s performance this afternoon will be a useful yardstick. Nichols Canyon put away Windsor Park at Punchestown in February, but the three and a half lengths aren’t insurmountable. Nonetheless, we’ve keen been on Nichols Canyon for a while now and trust in him to get the day off to the perfect start. Nichols Canyon should go off at 4/1 so back him each way to protect your neck.

Next up is the R.S.A. Chase, a race we would have found far tougher to call, if a big favourite of this column, Coneygree hadn’t decided to take his chance in the big one on Friday, the Gold Cup. We think the latter would really have put it up to the Michael O’Leary owned Don Poli but in his absence we don’t think there’s anything that holds a flame to Bryan Cooper’s mount. Indeed many have Don Poli as their festival banker. Incidentally, and we’re not saying for a second that Ruby Walsh is done but we think Cooper is the man to eventually take the mantle as Ireland’s leading national hunt jockey.

On to the feature of the day, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the test to find the finest national hunt sprinter, two miler, over a fast arriving twelve fences. The race was given its present name in 1980 – the year of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday – to recognise her fantastic contribution to national hunt racing. We’re sure that like us, the late, great lady would be intrigued by this afternoon’s centrepiece and probably as puzzled by the conundrum of picking a winner.

It may sound strange but this year’s renewal, despite including the last two winners, is in the eyes of far more astute judges than us, wide open. We have to start with a real darling of Cheltenham, the winner of this race in 2013, Sprinter Sacre. Under Barry Geraghty, the ‘Sprinter gave an adoring audience a masterclass of power, poise, jumping excellence and, of course breathtaking speed to put in the most dominant performance this column has ever seen. He went off an unbackable favourite, at 1/4, and proved his once in a generation quality, with a nineteen length victory. As you may have guessed something happened, the something coming in the form of a potentially career ending heart scare. Sadly this meant the horse that we believe would have lit up racing in the manner of Best Mate, Kauto Star and Istabraq was left on the sideline until last Autumn. Scratch what we said yesterday about a potential victory for Hurricane Fly. If Sprinter Sacre wins today, the entire of Cheltenham may just lift off. He has run just once in sixteen months though, a valiant second to our selection, Paul Nicholls, Dodging Bullets. Under Noel Fehily, he beat Sprinter Sacre on his last day out at Ascot but the overwhelming feeling was that the latter’s stamina failed him after a lengthy absence. We think Dodging Bullets is an underrated horse who probably hasn’t garnered the respect he deserves coming into today. Sire de Grugy won last year, very convincingly it must be said but suffered a considerable injury setback. While impressive in his last two victories he may have emptied his tank a little in victory at a sticky, heavy Chepstow, just weeks ago.

Sprinter Sacre’s ceiling is infinitely higher than our selection but there’s no way he reaches those heights again though he may not need to. Incidentally, if ‘Sprinter is out of the reckoning coming up the hill Barry Geraghty won’t push him too hard. Sire de Grugy is the reigning champ who won’t drop his crown without a fight, but how much does he have in him? Further, there is Willie Mullin’s Champagne Fever*, who but for a short head defeat in last year’s Arkle, would be three for three at the festival. Course form is vital and perhaps this is why Dodging Bullets, the only one of the four at the top of the market without a March victory in Cheltenham is avoided in most quarters. Only victory today will swing opinion and we’re willing to stick our neck out for Paul Nicholls’ less fancied horse.

The last race we’ll mention is the Festival Champion Bumper, a hugely popular bet with the punters, despite the perennial difficulty in picking the winner. Bumpers are flat races, so no fences, run under national hunt rules. All horses involved are young, inexperienced and quite often unpredictable. The one that we and many others have liked for a while is Moon Racer, trained by David Pipe. Willie Mullins saddles up just the seven horses for this race, so anything could happen. We really liked one of these, Up for Review, when seeing him romp to victory at Leopardstown at Christmas, but he disappointed massively in defeat three weeks ago at Naas. 33/1 is tempting though. Willie Mullins son, Patrick, rides favourite Bordini and the younger Mullins rarely gets them wrong. Nonetheless, let’s stick with the courage of our convictions. Moon Racer to send us all home happy this evening.

Wednesday’s Picks

1:30 – Neptune Novices Hurdle – Nichols Canyon e/w @ 4/1

2:05 – R.S.A. Chase – Don Poli – 7/4

3:20 – Queen Mother Champion Chase

  1. Dodging Bullets e/w @ 11/2
  2. Sire de Grugy
  3. Champagne Fever

5:15 – Champion Bumper – Moon Racer e/w @7/1

*Champagne Fever has been announced a non-runner in this race

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