Following the conclusion of the Christmas and early January races, attention in the horse racing world is now switching to the March Cheltenham Festival. Many pointers have emerged in recent weeks for the famous meeting and this article concentrates on the feature race on each of the four days at Prestbury Park.
Main Four Races At The Cheltenham Festival
On the opening Tuesday, the Champion Hurdle is the main event and the Nicky Henderson trained Buveur d’Air will be aiming to defend the title which he won in 2017. The 7-year-old gelding has won comfortably at both Newcastle and Kempton this term and remains unbeaten over hurdles since finishing third in the 2016 Supreme Novices Hurdle.
The main opposition to Buveur d’Air was expected to be Faugheen who won the 2015 Champion Hurdle, but who has raced only three times since January 2016. Reappearing after a lengthy absence during November, the Willie Mullins gelding was a decisive winner of a four-runner race at Punchestown before being pulled up at Leopardstown last month following a fairly lifeless performance. Many of the Mullins horses performed below par over Christmas so this may just have been an off-day for the normally reliable Faugheen.
Other horses to consider for the Champion Hurdle include the veterans My Tent Or Yours and The New One who are worth considering as each way potential, while news is awaited on the well-being of 2017 Triumph Hurdle winner Defi Du Seuil, who failed to sparkle in his seasonal appearance over 2m4f at Ascot. The gelding was unbeaten over hurdles before that disappointment and may just prefer running over two miles.
For the following day at Cheltenham, the Queen Mother Champion Chase takes centre stage with Altior aiming to follow his win in the ‘Arkle’ last season by claiming the main two-mile crown. The Nicky Henderson trained horse has yet to be beaten over obstacles but has not raced this campaign due to a wind operation.
Altior is likely to be opposed by last season’s winner and runner-up Special Tiara and Fox Norton respectively. The former usually adopts front running tactics but has failed to win in three starts since his triumph last March, whereas Fox Norton is a consistent horse at the distance but who had his stamina limitations exposed when pulled up in the Kempton 3m King George VI chase on Boxing Day.
Further opposition to Altior includes Politologue from the Paul Nicholls stable. The Grey horse has won three times this season including the Tingle Creek and Desert Orchid Chase but there is just a suggestion that he prefers running during early Winter rather than March and April.
Attention then switches to the Stayers Hurdle as the main attraction of the Thursday card with last season’s victor Nichols Canyon unable to defend his title due to a fatal fall over Christmas. He had beaten 2016 Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry in last year’s renewal, and although the Harry Fry trained horse reversed that form at Punchestown, there have been recent signs of a lack of pace from the horse at the finish of races.
Current ante-post for the 3m hurdle race is the Jedd O’Keefe trained Sam Spinner who impressed when beating L’Ami Serge at Ascot last month and who appears to have improved significantly since racing over longer distances. Apple’s Jade from the Gordon Elliott stable may provide decent opposition to Sam Spinner and he proved his stamina by just beating Supasundae in Ireland over Christmas. The greater demands of Cheltenham may work to his advantage.
The following and closing day of the Festival features the Cheltenham Gold Cup and this race is becoming more open as the days progress. Last season’s winner Sizing John performed uncharacteristically poorly in the Christmas Chase behind Road To Respect at Leopardstown with Jessica Harrington claiming that the horse may have raced too quickly after a recent win in the John Durkan Chase.
Sizing John will probably be opposed by Might Bite who won the 3m RSA last season at the Festival and who claimed the prestigious King George on Boxing Day. The running action of the horse suggests that he may need a decent surface, but racing over 3m2f on the more gruelling New Course will also represent a challenge after he appeared to struggle on the Cheltenham hill last season.
Other contenders for the Gold Cup include Irish trained Coney Island who won at Ascot last time but who may lack experience over fences while Bristol De Mai won the Betfair Chase at Haydock but appears to need a good test of stamina in heavy going.