With the equine flu having hit hard at just the wrong time of the season and Ireland throwing out precious little in terms of tangible Cheltenham Festival pointers recently, where should we look for clues as to who may win the big races in March?

Betting is hotting up on all of the 28 championship races, Irish horses being popular given the perceived weakening of the British string following the outbreak of disease, but with all trainers expected to have their teams fully fit and ready to go on the 12th we need to take a look at the season as a whole to attempt to decipher where the best form lines are.

Not every festival race has a strong, recognised list of trial races to look back on and in some cases winners can come from any background.  That said, the below festival highlights do indeed have identifiable races that, while strong in their own right, can often give indications as to who and what may be successful when it counts.

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

As a race for inexperienced horses this is often a hard one to get one’s head around, but given their quality and the fact some of them are run at Cheltenham, these races often prove to be the best of the bunch. This season’s winners are in brackets:

Sharp Novices’ Hurdle, Cheltenham, November (Elixir Du Nutz).
EBF National Hunt Novices’ Hurdle, Cheltenham, December (Elixir Du Nutz).
Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle, Ascot, December (Angels Breath).
Williamhill.com Novices’ Hurdle, Kempton, December (Mister Fisher).
Future Champions Novice Hurdle, Leopardstown, December (Aramon).
Tolworth Hurdle, Sandown, January (Elixir Du Nutz).
Supreme Trial Novices’ Hurdle, Haydock, January (Mister Fisher).
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, Cheltenham, January (Birchdale).
Deloitte Novice Hurdle, Leopardstown, February (Klassical Dream).

More trials are of course set to be run however sometimes putting in a big performance too close to the festival can render a horse less than 100%, hence why recent last-time-out winners often go off favourite while the bigger priced horses go on to be successful in hindsight often having had exactly the right profile to win the race.

In this case both Elixir Du Nutz and Mister Fisher sit behind at least five other horses in the betting for the Supreme Novices’, yet are the only horses to win multiple recognised trials this season.

Arkle Chase

Another novice race but one in this instance so often won by one of the first two in the market, horses often placed there having won more than one recognised trial which is easier in this chasing division.

Squareintheair Novices’ Chase, Cheltenham, October (Diakali).
Future Stars Intermediate Chase, Sandown, November (Elegant Escape).
November Novices’ Chase, Cheltenham, November (Lalor).
Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, Sandown, December (Dynamite Dollars).
Noel Novices’ Chase, Ascot, December (Vinndication).
Racing Post Novice Chase, Leopardstown, December (Le Richebourg).
Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase, Kempton, December (Dynamite Dollars).
Racing Post Lightning Novices’ Chase, Doncaster, January (Dynamite Dollars).
Arkle Novice Chase, Leopardstown, February (Le Richebourg).

Long time favourite Lalor has won just one of these races while Le Richebourg has come to the fore only in recent times.  Look out for Kalashnikov though who is not out of this but has been looked after very well by not being asked to contend one of these often energy-sapping events.

Champion Hurdle

Naturally as these are seasoned pros, Champion Hurdlers very often take an obvious route encompassing these main trial events:

Elite Hurdle, Wincanton, November (Verdana Blue).
Greatwood Hurdle, Cheltenham, November (Nietzsche).
Morgiana Hurdle, Leopardstown, November (Sharjah).
Ascot Hurdle, Ascot, November (If The Cap Fits).
Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Newcastle, December (Buveur D’Air).
International Hurdle, Cheltenham, December (Brain Power).
Christmas Hurdle, Kempton, December (Verdana Blue).
Ryanair Hurdle, Leopardstown, December (Sharjah).
Champion Hurdle Trial, Haydock, January (Global Citizen).
Irish Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown, February (Apple’s Jade).
Contenders’ Hurdle, Sandown, February (Buveur D’Air).

A few multiples here then and a couple of them are underrated arguably.  Verdana Blue was felt to simply be fitter than the others in the early part of the season but went on to beat favourite Buveur D’Air later in the campaign.  Sharjah is another who is in there on merit and has won his races fair and square against good opposition.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Much like the above, these contenders are well known though it is already expected that if Altior doesn’t win this race it’ll be the shock of the season.

Shloer Chase, Cheltenham, November (Sceau Royal).
Tingle Creek Chase, Sandown, December (Altior).
John Durkan Memorial Chase, Punchestown, December (Min).
Desert Orchid Chase, Kempton, December (Altior).
Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase, Leopardstown, December (Simply Ned).
Clarence House Chase, Ascot, January (Altior).

Ryanair Chase

Given this race’s intermediate distance, it’ll also be wise to check out those running in classic Gold Cup trials (see below) as often trainer’s reach the last moment before adjudging that their representative may either not stay the distance in the Blue Riband or may simply not be good enough before being re-routed to this race.

Old Roan Chase, Aintree, October (Frodon).
Haldon Gold Cup, Exeter, November (God’s Own).
BetVictor Gold Cup, Cheltenham, November (Baron Alco).
Christy 1965 Chase, Ascot, November (Politologue).
John Durkan Memorial Chase, Punchestown, December (Min).
Peterborough Chase, Huntingdon, December (Charbel).
December Gold Cup, Cheltenham, December (Frodon).
King George VI Chase, Kempton, December (Clan Des Obeaux).
Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase, Leopardstown, December (Simply Ned).
Christmas Chase, Leopardstown, December (Kemboy).
Irish Gold Cup, Leopardstown, February (Bellshill).

We see then that Frodon is the boy here given that what this list won’t show you is that he was also second to a very well-handicapped at the time Baron Alco before also going on to win at Cheltenham in December, again see below.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

The big one.  Be aware though that some contenders for this race, especially long-time favourite Presenting Percy, have been wrapped in cotton wool and have not really contested any of the below trial races.

Charlie Hall Chase, Wetherby, November (Definitly Red).
Champion Chase, Down Royal, November (Road To Respect).
Christy 1965 Chase, Ascot, November (Politologue).
Betfair Chase, Haydock, November (Bristol De Mai).
John Durkan Memorial Chase, Punchestown, December (Min).
King George VI Chase, Kempton, December (Clan Des Obeaux).
Christmas Chase, Leopardstown, December (Kemboy).
Cotswold Chase, Cheltenham, January (Frodon).
Irish Gold Cup, Leopardstown, February (Bellshill).

So then, neither last year’s winner Native River nor market leader Presenting Percy have won any of these races but if nothing else, classy types such as Bellshill and Kemboy cannot be discounted while the King George VI is ranked second only to this race in the 3-mile division so Clan Des Obeaux simply cannot be overlooked.