It’s time once again for the Cheltenham Festival – jump racing’s premier showpiece. From Tuesday to Friday (March 15 to 18) the best of the best will be competing in the best races. The ground at Cheltenham is drying out, as it always does in the Spring and experience in the hurly burly of big fields running at top speed over obstacles on a tricky undulating course with a stiff uphill finish will ensure that only the strongest survive. All times are GMT.
The opening event is the Grade 1 Supreme Novices Hurdle over 2 miles. Cue Card, a brilliant winner of last year’s Champion Bumper, is being hailed as a Festival Banker by all and sundry but Champion Bumper winners have an appalling record in this race (the last dual winner was around the time of Noah) and he has looked likely to need further. The pick is Nicky Henderson’s SPIRIT SON who is an exciting French import unbeaten in 3 starts in England and, being by Poliglote, is likely to show marked improvement for a sound surface.

The second event is The Grade 1 Arkle Chase over 2 miles where I expect an upset in the form of David Pipe’s DAN BREEN who is already a better chaser than he was a hurdler winning his last 2 starts by wide margins before being disqualified last time out for interference. He’s likely to do even better here whilst short priced favourite Finian’s Rainbow, although seeming the part, has only won in small fields and is a dodgy jumper.

The first day’s feature is the Champion Hurdle over 2 miles and defending champion and ante post favourite Binocular is back but he’s at a short price and this is a much better race than last year’s. I like his stable companion OSCAR WHISKY who is a high class hurdler in his own right and who has proven better than ever this season winning his two races in emphatic style.
The Grade 3 Spinal Research Handicap Chase (3 miles) should prove to be a showdown between Sunnyhillboy and GREAT ENDEAVOUR. It’s been my belief from the start of this season that GREAT ENDEAVOUR (Tuesday’s nap) will prove himself in at least one of these big handicaps and no better place for it than Cheltenham where easily his best effort as a novice was recorded. He was beaten only by Poquelin (my nap of the meeting, see later) here in the A.P. Gold Cup; holds a 2-0 record over main rival Sunnyhillboy and looks a cinch to make it 3 from three here. Get in early and often
TUESDAY’S NAP – GREAT ENDEAVOUR (Spinal Research Handicap Chase; 2.40 p.m.)

TIME FOR RUPERT (BANKER BET) is one of the safest Bankers all festival in the RSA Chase (3 miles) regardless of the short price (around 2/1). He’s done everything asked in a short career as a novice chaser (looking a natural in two runs at this track) after looking a chaser during a high class hurdling stint. The opposition is spotty at best and so 2/1 is actually an overlay price
Big Zeb is the defending champion here after upsetting Master Minded last year and he will not go down easily but he’s 10 years old now and didn’t look up to scratch on last. Master Minded produced one of the best performances by a 2 mile Chaser ever to win this in 2009 but the ground was softer then and he seems very ground dependent these days. It’s time for the next generation of 2 mile chasers to stamp its authority on this event and the best candidate is WOOLCOMBE FOLLY allegedly Paul Nicholls’ second string but whose win at Cheltenham on last was achieved in a faster time than Master Minded recorded later that same afternoon.
FOR NON STOP (Wednesday’s nap) looks a handicap blot in the Coral Cup (2 miles 5 furlongs) after being beaten by going-places Grand Crus (fancied by the hypesters to beat Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle) but ending up 11 lengths ahead of the third. Only 9 lbs higher now, he can’t be opposed.
WEDNESDAY’S NAP – FOR NON STOP (Coral Cup; 4.00 p.m.)

The meeting’s BEST PARLAY BET is a Thursday Double with POQUELIN (NAP OF THE MEETING) in the Ryanair Chase and BIG BUCK’S (BANKER BET OF THE MEETING) in the World Hurdle. Why anybody would want to oppose BIG BUCK’S with upstart Grand Crus beats me as he won a race on last in which many contenders fell and in a poor time. BIG BUCK’S, unbeaten on his last 11 races, ranks alongside Desert Orchid and Kauto Star as among the best of all time and he’ll easily make it 12 in a row.
NAP OF THE MEETING – POQUELIN (Ryanair Chase; 2.40 p.m.)
BANKER BET OF THE MEETING – BIG BUCK’S (World Hurdle; 3.20 p.m.)

The traditional Friday opener, The Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle (2m 1f) looks a straight fight between another Nicky Henderson ex-French import Grandouet and his November conqueror SAM WINNER who beat him by 15l over course and distance. That was Grandouet’s second run for Henderson and he has improved markedly since winning 2 from 2 in lesser company. SAM WINNER disappointed at Chepstow on his next run but has been rested, will come here fresh and should confirm the form.
Court In Motion has been all the rage for the Albert Bartlett (Spa Hurdle; 3 miles) for some time now including with your humble scribe but the drying ground is against him and he’s suspect at the trip. The likely winner is CHAMPION COURT (Friday’s nap) who impressed at Cheltenham in a Grade 2 event in November but disappointed on his next run. Martin Keighley’s horses are back in form now and the selection is reported to have put in a sparkling exercise work on Sunday so he’s the each way pick.
FRIDAY’S NAP – CHAMPION COURT (Spa Hurdle; 2.40 p.m.)
Finally, The Cheltenham Gold Cup. This looks of a trappy event what with the “old brigade” of Denman (11); Kauto Star (11) and Imperial Commander (10) all long in the tooth and obvious next generation champion Long Run saving his best efforts for the flatter, quicker Kempton. The race screams out UPSET and the three most likely candidates are China Rock, Kempes and Tidal Bay. China Rock has been found out twice in Grade 1 company since making an excellent start to the campaign (winning small field events at Gowran Park and Punchestown) including being beaten by 16l (4th of 9) by Kempes on last. But both these defeats came in testing conditions and he’s very much a good ground performer. His running style (strong travelling leader) might bring him in direct conflict with Carruthers (who only runs because his owners placed a bet at 1000/1 before he was born that he would win a Gold Cup) and Denman and it’s expected that Kempes will also improve for good ground so China Rock is reluctantly bypassed.
Tidal Bay just failed to catch Imperial Commander in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock (3 miles) and then ran 2nd of 5 to Neptune Collonges over the Gold Cup course finishing with a rare rattle on both occasions. This race will suit him perfectly but he’s notoriously temperamental and one never knows if he’ll turn up on the day. Also, he’s now 10 years old and exposed over fences. Any of these three can do it but the edge is given to the younger, relatively unexposed KEMPES to create the upset.
The TOP THREE for the Fesrtival are TIME FOR RUPERT (RSA Chase); POQUELIN (Ryanair Chase) and BIG BUCK’S (World Hurdle)
Good Luck!


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