I am old enough to remember the days when the Cheltenham Festival primarily revolved around the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup.
Now, almost every race is to be revered, boasting its own agenda and its own personality. To win them is to win at the Festival and, outside the Grand National, that represents the pinnacle of Jumps racing.
The stardust is still sprinkled by the jewels in the crown, however. The accolades of top 2m hurdler and top staying chaser remain the most sought-after. Their places on the roll of honour remain the most prized.
Here’s my pre-meeting take on this year’s Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup:
UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE (Tuesday)
Although 14 horses have won the Champion Hurdle more than once, not since Hardy Eustace in 2005 has one won back-to-back renewals. BUVEUR D’AIR is on the cusp of emulating the late Dessie Hughes’s admirable warrior, however, if the formbook and the betting markets are to be believed.
Nicky Henderson’s 7yo, owned by JP McManus, is a very short price to repeat his classy success 12 months ago when he justified a surprise mid-season decision to abort his chasing career. It wasn’t a vintage Champion, but there’s no doubt he’s a seriously talented tool and one who has effortlessly extended his unbeaten run to nine with three easy and cosy triumphs this term.
Given his slick jumping and his ability to handle any ground, it would be a major surprise if Buveur D’Air was turned over. He wasn’t particularly impressive at Sandown last time, but the need to cut out his own running probably didn’t suit. Here, he is likely to get the strong gallop he relishes.
My only concern for the favourite would be that, for a horse Henderson freely admits requires lots of work, he’s not been given any kind of a test on the track this season. The sages reckon that won’t matter because this is a weak Champion, but I’m not too sure about that. Any race that contains four proven Grade One performers from the Willie Mullins yard, FAUGHEEN, MELON, WICKLOW BRAVE and YORKHILL, is not a contest lacking strength in depth in my book!
For Wicklow Brave, this will probably be, like last season, a sighter for other targets during the spring. And the presence of Yorkhill is probably one last throw of the dice to try and rekindle his best form. But I am not prepared to give up just yet on Faugheen, superb Champion Hurdler of 2015. Yes, age is against the 10yo (only four winners have been older than eight since 1951!), but he ran far better than he was given credit for in the Irish Champion last month and the return to the plate of Ruby Walsh would be dangerous to under-estimate. Cheekpieces are fitted for the first time, with the aim of sharpening him up, and it wouldn’t surprise me either if connections opted for a change to his usual front-running tactics in a bid to revitalise and refresh.
Melon, in my opinion, is the dark horse of the race. A magnificent-looking animal, he has always been regarded with the utmost respect by the Mullins team and remains open to stacks of improvement. Forget his effort behind Faugheen in the Irish Champion because the fitting of a hood to help him to settle better was resented by the 6yo. It is highly significant that Mullins sent him over to Cheltenham for his previous run in the International Hurdle when he looked all over the winner approaching the last, only to be run out of it up the hill by seasoned veterans MY TENT OR YOURS and The New One. He actually gave 6lbs to My Tent, runner-up in three of the last four Champions, so he should certainly reverse International form, and I can see him running into a place at least here. The presence of the brilliant Paul Townend in the plate is a huge bonus.
Gordon Elliott’s MICK JAZZ is another more than capable of picking up place pieces late on. He is likely to be ridden patiently to make the most of his turn of foot. And I’m a big admirer too of Alan King’s late entry, ELGIN. The handicapper appeared to have got his measure when he was beaten in a big handicap at Ascot over Christmas, but he looked to have improved again for a break when landing the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle when upped in class at at Wincanton last month. His profile suggests he’s best on such tracks, flat and right-handed, but he did land the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November.
All in all, a much better, much more competitive Champion Hurdle than many would have you believe. Buveur D’Air has earned his place on the pedestal, but Faugheen is over-priced, while Melon is a stand-out each/way bet.
TIMICO CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP (Friday)
The very mention of trends can leave some racing professionals foaming at the mouth with anger. But because most of the races at the Cheltenham Festival have such long histories, they have developed very robust profiles, hence trends that cannot be ignored. Trends that reflect the kind of horse we should be looking for to win the Blue Riband event of the week.
For the Gold Cup, there are a staggering number of trends, about 30, that have built up over the years. It is almost unheard of for any horses to satisfy all of them. For instance, NATIVE RIVER, MINELLA ROCCO and DEFINITLY RED fall down on one that tells us that almost all Gold Cup winners in the modern era have never run further than the 3m2f trip.
However, quite remarkably, the current favourite, MIGHT BITE, fits the bill in every single respect and as a horse almost certainly still improving, he represents one of the star bets of the week.
Yes, this is a richly competitive Gold Cup. Not for many years have I heard so many diverse opinions on the possible outcome. But Nicky Henderson’s 9yo has made quite spectacuilar progress since looking all arms and legs when beaten by Binge Drinker at Ffos Las in a three-runner novice chase on his fencing debut just 16 months ago.
Of course, he himself looked a bit like a binge drinker when veering violently up the Cheltenham hill after the final fence in the RSA Chase last year. But it spoke volumes for his constitution, and of course his stamina for the stiffer examination in the Gold Cup, that he was still able to recover and pip a stablemate, Whisper, who has since gone on to all but win a Ladbrokes Trophy (former Hennessy Gold Cup) off a whopping mark of 161. And even if he hadn’t got up, it would have been very hard to forget the sensational front-running display he had unleashed for most of the race. Not even a trailblazer as talented as Acapella Bourgeois could go with him, and in his prep race, Sandra Hughes’s 7yo had hammered by 32 lengths ROAD TO RESPECT, a subsequent Festival winner and one of MIght Bite’s chief rivals next week.
Henderson’s charge has maintained his winning streak this term. It was only a four-runner contest that he landed first time up, but the runner-up he demolished that day, Frodon, has since gone on to bolt up by 17 lengths in a competitive handicap at Cheltenham off 11-7 and 154. Some observers were still not convinced by Might Bite when he went on to win the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, citing the close proximity in second and third of DOUBLE SHUFFLE and TEA FOR TWO. But this was his first serious test outside novice company and given that he was on the front end of the pace throughout the race and had the considerable task of preventing Bristol De Mai, fresh from his Betfair Chase blitz, from getting his own way in front, I felt there was a lot to like about Might Bite’s display. What’s more, the aforementioned placed horses had a marked preference for a Kempton track that does favour specialists and did not surprise some shrewdies with their efforts, especially as Double Shuffle had shown definite improvement when previously trying 3m and Tea For Two was not far behind the mighty Thistlecrack in his pomp in the 2016 King George. Indeed Nick Williams’s 8yo went into this season’s race with a superior official rating to Might Bite.
All this makes the 2018 Gold Cup sound like a one-horse romp. Of course, it is far from that. Good cases can be made for six or seven of his opponents. But apart from the threat of Heavy ground, I am struggling to locate any negatives to put you off Might Bite -- unless, of course, you do believe he could lose his bearings again on the run-in. Yes, it did also happen when he won a novice hurdle at Cheltenham in April 2015, but the risk that it might happen again is factored into his price which, in my view, is generous at around 7/2.
Of the rest, the late withdrawal of last year’s winner SIZING JOHN is a blow to the race, although he would have been hard to support, given his absence from action since an uncharacteristic flop at Christmas and given his preference for genuinely Good ground. I have always much preferred the chances of stablemate OUR DUKE, breathtaking winner of the Irish Grand National last season considering his novice status and hefty weight. He too has had his problems this term, but trainer Jessica Harrington has got him back just in time, judged on his two prep runs, and as a relentless galloper, he should be suited by the demands of a Gold Cup, providing his sometimes-sketchy jumping holds up. His achievement in giving 7lbs and a one-length beating to top-class novice Presenting Percy last time over an inadequate 2m4f trip should not be under-estimated.
Like Harrington, Willie Mullins is also throwing more than one dart at the board in his bid to win the Gold Cup for the first time. DJAKADAM has had his chances and has lacked sparkle this term, but KILLULTAGH VIC, BACHASSON and TOTAL RECALL are top-notch staying chasers far from fully exposed.
For varying reasons, whether that be chasing experience, stamina doubts or graded-race nous, all three have question marks hovering over them for a contest of this magnitude. But Killultagh Vic, who won the Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle at the 2015 Festival and was good enough to beat Thistlecrack a month later, would have won the Irish Gold Cup last month but for a fall at the last. And what an achievement that would have been on his first chasing start for almost two years! Bachasson is an exciting jumper who has won nine of his 15 Jumps starts. And Total Recall has improved dramatically since arriving at the Mullins yard, winning the aforementioned Ladbrokes Trophy, albeit in receipt of a stone from Whisper.
Notwithstanding those wretched trends, it would be foolish to dismiss the prospects of Native River, a gallant third last year and sure to appreciate the Softer surface this time round. Nor those of Definitly Red, gritty winner of the Cotswold Chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham in January. If the race turns into a stamina-sapping grueller, both will be prepared to put their hearts on their sleeves.
In such circumstances, Minella Rocco would also be staying on, as he was when finishing second last year. But it is worth pointing out that of the last 66 horses to try again after being beaten in their first Gold Cup, not one has succeeded, which would also go against Paul Nicholls’s representative, SAPHIR DU RHEU.
My pick of the outsiders is Harry Fry’s AMERICAN, who is short on experience but who ran a blinder behind Definitly Red in the Cotswold. Asking him to reverse the form is a tall order, but not out of the question considering he had clouds of doubt hanging over him that day after disappointing in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury. He took to Cheltenham like a duck to water, he jumped and travelled beautifully, and looked the likely winner turning for home. Soft ground is right up his street, and Fry is not the kind of trainer to waste big-race entries.
All that analysis leaves us with the winners of the two main trials in Ireland, the Christmas Chase (formerly the Lexus) and the Irish Gold Cup. The former was taken by ROAD TO RESPECT, whose progressive profile reads well. The flagbearer for wily veteran Noel Meade, the 7yo wouldn’t want the ground to deteriorate any further, particularly as his Gigginstown owner Michael O’Leary is far from convinced he’ll get home over this 3m2f trip. The latter race was taken by EDWULF, victory for whom would suck every last tear of emotion from the Cheltenham stands after his astonishing comeback from the dead. To go from collapsing in front of the stands 12 months ago to parading in front of those selfsame stands as the winner of the Gold Cup would be a story not even the Cheltenham Festival could be prepared for.
TO catch my final selections for every race at the Cheltenham Festival, log on to this website from 7 pm on Sunday.