Annie Power banished the ghosts of last year with a brilliant, gutsy performance in yesterday’s showpiece, Champion Hurdle. The classy mare, so unfortunate last year, destroyed all comers to completely justify her connections decision to introduce her as a late substitute for the absent, Faugheen.
We’re no experts but it would seem that the seven pounds allowance over her male rivals may have proven irrelevant in the end as Annie Power absolutely whipped her opposition. Ruby Walsh dared the field to catch his mount after a gutsy charge from the front, but it was only after soaring over last year’s nemesis that he could be sure of victory.
With a few strokes of luck –last year’s infamous denouement and a narrow defeat to More of That in the 2014 World Hurdle – this could have been a third consecutive victory at the Festival for Annie Power. As it was, owner Rich Ricci was left in tears while Walsh, not famed for his cheery disposition, looked outwardly elated at the mare’s victory.
Annie Power, the Cheltenham nomad, will probably be elsewhere next year – perhaps attempting to emulate Dawn Run – but the feeling is after this that she is simply too good not to race against the boys every year.
Walsh enjoyed a three-timer with Douvan’s predicted facile victory in the Arkle Chase merely enhancing an already stellar reputation. Vroum Vroum Mag, herself a substitute in the Mares Hurdle, was also comfortable in securing a remarkable eighth consecutive mare’s title at the festival for Mullins. Min may have been overturned in the day’s opener but for the canny punters who chose Un de Sceaux tomorrow over the untested novice, a fairly hefty accumulator is still on.
Cheltenham’s all-time leading trainer Nicky Henderson struck gold early with Altior, but it was all about the Mullins and Walsh show after that. Willie Mullins has some real headaches going into next year’s festival but, good headaches mind you, like the ones Leonardo di Caprio endures in Miami night clubs.
Having, as usual, ignored our own advice to avoid the handicaps, we had, what one could only describe as a shocking day’s gambling but, the beauty of Cheltenham is that there is always tomorrow!
So, to Day 2, which will be highlighted by the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Wednesday 16th March – Feature Race: Queen Mother Champion Chase
Right, time to salvage some dignity. And money! First up is the Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle and on paper, this appears to be a two-way duel between Yorkhill, another from the dream-team combo of Mullins and Walsh, and Alan King’s Yanworth. The latter has long been touted as one to watch at the Festival and our bias lies here as we’ve tied Yanworth in with Douvan and Thistlecrack to hopefully make our week.
Short priced novices from Closutton, like Yorkhill (2/1), generally perform well at Cheltenham, but Yanworth was extraordinarily impressive in January and should open Alan King’s Festival account.
Next up is our Festival Nap, More of That in the RSA Chase. Now, admittedly, we got him at 5/1 a while back but we’re still keen on him at 13/8. Winner of the World Hurdle in 2014, after a thrilling battle with Annie Power, the JP McManus-owned eight-year-old has taken wonderfully to the larger obstacles and is unbeaten at Prestbury Park. His main threat is No More Heroes, a Grade One winner himself who will be looking to open the account for Gigginstown Stud and Bryan Copper. If More of That is the horse his performances suggest, then he should have too much here.
2016 Queen Mother Champion Chase
The Champion Chase brings together the best chasing sprinters in racing and tomorrow’s renewal represents an interesting contest between a rising star and one of the most beloved horses to ever grace the winners’ enclosure at Cheltenham
2015’s Arkle winner, Un de Sceaux, has been imperious when he’s remained upright, with a fall at Christmas being the only blip on his radar in 2015. He’s a justifiable odds-on favourite and clearly the one to beat but, tomorrow he comes up against the rejuvenated darling of Prestbury Park, Sprinter Sacre.
Nicky Henderson’s charge gave one of the most complete two-mile performances ever in winning the Champion Chase in 2013, and it appeared that he would dominate the division like no other before him. But, horse-racing is fraught with peril and when Sprinter Sacre was found to have a serious heart condition in 2014 it appeared the end was nigh. Last year’s failure to finish here wasn’t exactly a beacon of optimism but, lo and behold, the ‘Sprinter looks something like his old self, and while rekindling the brilliance of 2013 is simply impossible, he should go close.
Sprinter Sacre will see plenty of bets just before the off, not necessarily because punters believe he will win, but because they love him and want him to provide one final spine-tingling Cheltenham moment.
Last year’s winner, Dodging Bullets, has received no love at all this year and is available at 14/1 but it’s hard to get excited about him on this year’s form. Then there is the 2014 winner, Sire de Grugy, who though honest as Donald Trump is ignorant, couldn’t get close to Un de Sceaux at Ascot in January.
The market without Un de Sceaux presents some interesting propositions and we’ve had a very small bet on Sizing Granite at 16/1 and he has plenty of scope to improve after his move to Colm Murphy’s yard.
Still, barring a fall or a Phoenix-like resurgence from Sprinter Sacre, it is almost impossible to look past Un de Sceaux and the relentless march of Team Mullins.
Finally, to the one of the most enjoyable gambling/lucky-dip experiences of the week, the Champion Bumper. Moon Racer made a thrilling (and enriching) burst from nowhere last year to take the Bumper inside the last half furlong to send many a punter home happy.
Augusta Kate appears to be the leading light for Willie Mullins, while Aidan Coleman’s mount, High Bridge is one we really expect to be in the mix. However, our vote goes to New To This Town who had second-favourite Davenir d’Une Vie behind him in his recent Gowran victory. Jessica Harrington doesn’t usually get involved in the Bumper unless she means business – Jezki one of two that’s travelled in the last 13 years – so she must really like New To This Town’s chances. Having Barry Geraghty on board is always a good thing too. A more obscure one to watch is Very Much So, who returns to the track after almost two years out.
We’ll be back on Thursday when guilt-free lunchtime pints will be the order of the day!
S.U.S. Picks – 16th March 2016
13:30 – Neptune Investments Novice Hurdle
Yanworth @ 6/4
14: 10 – RSA Chase
More of That @ 7/4
15:30 – Queen Mother Champion Chase
Sizing Granite (without Un de Sceaux) 10/1
17:30 – Champion Bumper
New to This Town @ 11/1