Faugheen’s absence creates a vacuum and there’s a Thief we like the look of….
The sun is out, for the first time in three months people actually look happy and Ireland offloaded the ball. Which means it must be March and time for the showpiece of national hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival. 2015 was all about A.P. McCoy’s long goodbye, the relentless dominance of the Willie Mullins/Ruby Walsh tandem, an unheralded novice and the most infamous fall in recent Cheltenham history.
Sadly, this year’s festival has already been blighted by injury, meaning punters will be denied sight of defending champions ‘The Machine’, Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle and last year’s Gold Cup winner, the surprise package, Coneygree.
At just eight years old, Faugheen is probably just one more Festival victory away from legendary status, but after a minor suspensory injury, Rich Ricci’s superstar will have to keep his powder dry until 2017. Meanwhile, Coneygree – who led all from the off last year – had his season curtailed after a serious enough injury to his hock in December. One still feels that Coneygree was never given the credit he deserved, perhaps because he doesn’t reside at Closutton or Ditcheat but, petty personal grievances aside, he should hopefully bounce back next year to contest the main event once more.
The great question surrounding Cheltenham of late is just how much dominance Willie Mullins will enjoy this year. His one-two from last year’s Champion Hurdle – Faugheen and Arctic Fire – are absent meaning a reshuffle of the champion trainer’s pack. Annie Power moves into Champion Hurdle favouritism while, after much bouncing around, Vroum Vroum Mag will be entrusted to continue the Mullins’ stranglehold in the Mares Hurdle.
We’ll be back every day to give you a preview and our picks of the day, and even at this late stage, we’ll do our best to identify some value. Oh, and just so you know, we won’t be tipping Victoria Pendleton on Pacha du Polder.
Tuesday 15th March 2016 – Feature Race: Champion Hurdle
For many of those who travel in their droves to the Cotswold each spring, the highlight of the week comes with the starter’s simple act of raising the white flag to commence the festival opening, Supreme Novices Hurdle. A gleeful roar, full of boundless optimism rises into the Gloucestershire air as the best novice hurdlers set the week’s actions in motion.
As has been the case in recent years, Willie Mullins saddles the favourite for the Supreme Novices Hurdle in Min. The Ricci-owned horse has dominated in his two starts this year and his chances appear to have been enhanced by recent form lines. Mullins seems very keen on Min but Ruby Walsh less so and there are those out there who feel his previous victories may have been significantly aided by the heavy Irish winter ground.
Min could go off at as high as 2/1 but he will be expected to set the tone for the inevitable Mullins day-one accumulator featuring future superstar, Douvan, Vroum Vroum Mag and Annie Power.
Despite the perceived lack of acclaim for Min, he coasted in his last two victories and his opposition that day has gone on to record impressive victories of their own.
The home charge will be led by Nicky Henderson’s pair of Altior and Buveur d’Air with Supasundae fancied by many as an each way chance.
Tombstone was a favourite of many punters over the winter but there has been little love of late for Gordon Elliott’s horse, after a poor showing on Irish Gold Cup day, where he was well beaten by Bleu et Rouge. However, fitted with a hood in the hope of getting his mood right, we can’t ignore a small each-way bet with the 14/1 on offer.
Still, with this much uncertainty, you may be best off following to the trend of recent years and abiding by the Mullins-Walsh tandem, though Altior will push Min very close.
Douvan (2/5) is untouchable –and unbackable – in the Arkle and, barring a fall, will romp home by as much as he and Ruby Walsh wish.
2016 Champion Hurdle
Up until Willie Mullins’ unfortunate announcement in February, the 2016 Champion Hurdle debate circled around how much air there would be between Faugheen and the field. ‘The Machine’ is gone for now, however, so a reshuffle has seen Annie Power supplemented into Tuesday’s big race and straight to the top of the market. Arctic Fire’s subsequent withdrawal means the race is without last year’s first two home.
Of course, anyone with even a fleeting interest in Cheltenham will know that Annie Power came down at the last when leading last year, saving the bookies an estimated £40 million. That Glen’s Melody went on to complete a day one four-timer anyway for Willie Mullins was lost in the chaos for many.
Still winless at this great meeting – a valiant second to More of That in the 2014 World Hurdle notwithstanding – AP (the horse) represents a valid favourite and will be aided here by her seven-pound claim over her male counterparts.
Ruby Walsh also had the option of piloting the doughty Nichols Canyon who can claim to be the only hurdler to ever take down Faugheen. That Faugheen spectacularly overturned this result is largely defunct at this point with the former’s tussle with Identity Thief a good indication of the small margins that separate this field.
Nichols Canyon dogged it out that day in a mudbath, but we’re inclined to think that the quick-drying ground will suit Identity Thief. The six-year-old landed a hugely impressive victory in Newcastle in November and he will have come on for his recent battle with Nichols Canyon. The ground is forecast as soft, soft to good in places so the omens look good for Identity Thief
Of the British hopes, The New One, fancied by many two years ago, holds the most promise for us and he’ll attract plenty of attention on the day. However, we’ve been keen on Identity Thief for a while now, and in a wide open race, he gets the nod.
In the Mares Hurdle, we’re remaining loyal to last year’s pick, Polly Peachum. After profiting on the bad luck of Annie Power in 2015, the Nicky Henderson-trained mare was desperately unlucky herself to be pipped on the line by Glen’s Melody. The challenge doesn’t get much easier this year with the introduction of Vroum Vroum Mag. Nonetheless, Polly Peachum will be smarting from last year, and while the favourite brings tremendous form to the Festival she has yet to prove her worth up the menacing hill.
We’re cheating a little in the National Hunt Chase by offering two tips. Our first comes in the shape of Gordon Elliott’s, Noble Endeavour. It was always the Co. Meath trainer’s hope that this promising seven-year-old would compete in this four-miler and with Jamie Codd on board, he has a huge chance. At 6/1, Noble Endeavor is hardly great value – the value in the handicaps is gone at this point, with punter confusion exacerbated by a lot of late declarations – but Elliott is pretty sweet on him and he was only narrowly beaten by the absent Killultagh Vic at last year’s festival.
Beware, however, of the hammering that Irish horses take from the British handicapper and, at 16/1, home hope, Local Show is a very appealing each-way shot.
Remember, follow the courage of your convictions but do not bet just for the sake of it. Unless you like the horse’s name. Or his colours.
We’ll be back tomorrow when we try to crack the Champion Bumper, and consider whether there might be some value in opposing Un de Sceaux in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Best of luck!
S.U.S. Picks 15th March 2016
(1) 13:30 Supreme Novices Hurdle
Tombstone e/w @ 14/1
(2) 15:30 Champion Hurdle
Identity Thief @ 6/1
(3) 16:10 Mares Hurdle
Polly Peachum e/w @ 6/1
(4) 16:50 Cross Country Chase
(i) Noble Endeavor e/w @ 6/1
(ii) Local Show e/w @ 16/1