With a fascinating festive period behind us, punters begin to trawl through the ante-post markets in the hope of picking value in the biggest races of 2019. At this time the Cheltenham Festival dominates our thinking as the biggest and best of horse racing prepare to do battle at Prestbury Park.
The world-famous festival takes place between Tuesday 12 and Friday 15 March with plenty of drama packed in to the four days of racing. The curtain goes up on day one with the eagerly anticipated Supreme Novices Hurdle and the off will be greeted by the famous Cheltenham roar from the packed stands.
Tuesday’s schedule is made up of some cracking races, with the Supreme Novices Hurdle followed by the Arkle Challenge Trophy, Festival Handicap Chase, the much-loved Champion Hurdle, David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, Novices Handicap Chase and the curtain goes down on day one with the National Hunt Chase.
Where will the winner’s come from? You’ll often find clues in the ante-post markets. Read on for a look at the early betting, the runners that have attracted interest from punters so far and which horses bookmakers want to keep close.
Races During Cheltenham Festival Day 1
|13:30||Supreme Novices Hurdle||Angels Breath, Elixir De Nutz, Mister Fisher|
|14:10||Arkle Challenge Trophy||Lalor, Kalashnikov, Le Richebourg|
|14:50||Festival Handicap Chase||Singlefarmpayment|
|15:30||Champion Hurdle||Buveur D’Air, Melon|
|16:10||David Nicholson Mares Hurdle||Apples Jade, Benie Des Dieux, Laurina|
|16:50||National Hunt Chase||Ok Corral, Ballyward, Impulsive Star, Discorama|
|17:30||Novices Handicap Chase||Tower Bridge|
Supreme Novices Hurdle
A Grade 1 event to start the party and the Supreme Novices Hurdle has a history that can be traced all the way back to 1946 when Prince Rupert won the first outing. Over the years we have enjoyed some thrilling renewals with Ruby Walsh making the event his own, sitting on no less than five winners to make him the race’s top jockey, Douvan being his most recent success in 2015. Willie Mullins rates as top trainer with five champions, Douvan also being his last.
Looking at this year’s version and bookies have pinned their hopes on Angels Breath who has been priced up as a 6/1 favourite. The four-year-old gelding represents the star-studded Nicky Henderson yard who have produced three previous champions – River Ceiriog 1986, Flown 1992 and Altior 2016.
Striking bay Angels Breath looks to make it a four-timer and arrives at course having won on debut when collecting a Supreme Trial Novices Hurdle at Ascot late last year, finishing 4 ½ lengths ahead of runner-up Danny Kirwan off an SP 6/4 fav. Lacking in experience, many will be keen to take the jolly on with Elixir De Nutz who won three-in-a-row between November and January. The grey is easy to back to continue that form at 12/1.
Another Grade 1 contest, the Arkle Chase is decided over 1m 7f and is open to horses aged five years old and above. With £175,000 worth of prize money, as well as a handsome trophy, it brings out the best names in the field as they aim to take home the winner’s cheque.
That was achieved by Footpad 12 months ago who did the business for Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh. Followers of the trends should be made aware Walsh is joint leading jockey on four wins with Barry Geraghty and they are joined on the honours list by Nicky Henderson who has trained a record six champions so far. Each of the last eight winners have been aged either six or seven years old, so keep an eye out for more runners who fall into a couple of those categories.
Lalor is early favourite with plenty of 6/1 available and the six-year-old gelding has finished in the top-three in each of his last three starts going into the year, a couple of wins followed by a third in Grade 1 company at Sandown in December. Standout of the main contenders is Gordon Elliott’s Samcro, a six-year-old that won seven of his first 11, finishing second twice in the same period.
Ultima Handicap Steeple Chase
There’s still a level of confusion among traders as to which horses will actually run in the race, but that’s normal for this time of year so it may be best to wait for bookies to go up with their non-runner no best quotes. At the time of checking – early January – odds makers have Singlefarmpayment at the head of the pile.
The eight-year-old gelding carries a record of three wins, nine seconds and a third from 24 previous starts and that experience should see him attract a fair share of attention as we approach the business end of preparations. He has become a bit of a course expert in recent times and ran five times in-a-row at Prestbury Park, including a second last April in a handicap chase over 3m 2f behind Another Hero, beaten a short head.
There was only one too good for him again in December when bagging silver in a handicap chase across the same distance, again dropping by the narrowest of margins when Cogry beat him a head. He has been knocking on the door of late and there’s no doubt if he brings his best to the festival this year he won’t be far away. His past should give him the upper hand on a few less exposed rivals.
Race of the day on Tuesday and it’s the one that’ll ensure everyone, both trackside and watching around the country, will be settled in well before the off. The Grade 1 hurdle race first made an appearance back in 1927 when Blaris secured a space in the history books as the first winner. Since then we’ve seen Ruby Walsh command top jockey with four champions, Nicky Henderson top trainer on seven and JP McManus is the most successful owner with seven. No one horse has won this prize more than three times.
Buveur D’Air went off a 4/6 favourite with the bookies last year and had no trouble living up to expectations, delighting backers when coming home in front under the safe hands of experienced pilot Barry Geraghty, boosting the numbers of Henderson and McManus in the process. Melon was beaten a neck that day when finishing second at 7/1, Mick Jazz completing the prize places at 25/1.
The 2019 renewal looks to be there for the taking and we’re going for two-in-a-row as traders appear to have been overly generous when offering Buveur D’Air as a 6/4 jolly. Granted, he didn’t run like an odds-on horse last year but did get the desired result and will arrive at Cheltenham better than the version we saw then. Those after a bigger price can try their luck on the 10/1 about Melon improving a place.
David Nicholson Mares Hurdle
You’ll find the usual suspects at the head of the betting for this race, including super mare Apples Jade who doesn’t go very often without the support of bookmakers. Followers have endured a bit of a sketchy time of late, but her CV proves her quality and Apples Jade is good enough to reign again.
The six-year-old flying the flag for Gordon Elliott has won 12 times in an 18-race career, claiming a place on another six occasions. That’s frightening, given the level she has been competing at since making her debut around Leopardstown on Boxing Day 2015 with a win. She returned to the Irish track in December for more of the same, banking the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle over three miles and backers can take heart from the fact she has already proven her love for Cheltenham. The 6/4 will ensure she’s popular, especially with casual backers going on reputation alone.
Others worth a mention on the list are Benie Des Dieux at 4/1, Laurina, who will some ignoring at 5/1, Verdana Blue yours at 12/1, Augusta Kate 20/1 and Liminil, also available at a weighty 20/1. If you were after a bigger price for an interest the latter should cover all bases.
National Hunt Chase
The final race of day one and backers will either be looking to end on a high, or recoup some of their losses. Hopefully it’s the former. Ok Corral is prominent early in the year with a 20/1 price tag making him second favourite behind Delta Work. Ok Corral proved his worth when winning a novices’ chase at Plumpton towards the end of last year, beating Impulsive Star when sent off a 2/9 shot, 2 ¼ lengths the winning distance that day.
Delta Work goes for Gordon Elliott and will also arrive at track boasting fine recent form. The five-year-old brown gelding won three-in-a-row, claiming the prize money at Downpatrick, Fairview and Leopardstown. The latter came in a novices’ chase over three miles, doing as expected to bag followers a winner when backed at SP 8/15.
Rockys Treasure is another worth a mention at this stage. The eight-year-old has won six times and placed another three from a 14-race record and claimed glory at Doncaster in mid-December when showing a decent field the way home over 2m 7f in another novices’ chase. 11/8 jolly at the starting post, he crossed the line a stunning 17 lengths ahead of runner-up Theclockisticking, proving his odds to be on the generous side.
Close Brothers Novices Handicap Chase
Another race where the ante-post betting is yet to take shape but there’s bits and pieces of interest there for those who like to beat the queues and get in early for the best price possible, even if that comes with the danger that your selection might not run, and you’ll lose your money. The shortest price quoted by most firms at present is Glen Forsa.
The six-year-old out of Mick Channon’s stables finished outside of the top two only once in his first half-dozen starts with the spare coming when ending a disappointing fifth in January 2017 when contesting a maiden hurdle over 1m 7f, a race won by odds-on favourite Burbank. He bounced back to form when winning two on the spin at Chepstow and Kempton, the latter coming in a novices’ limited handicap over two miles, four furlongs.
Tower Bridge leaps off the page at an eye-catching 20/1 quote and he’s sure to handle himself much better than those odds suggest. Bookies appear to have taken Joseph O’Brien’s hope lightly and that’ll set alarm bells ringing in the ears of value hunters. He won a novice hurdle last year at Leopardstown and had made the necessary improvements since.