Tom's Tips: Cheltenham first day preview
THERE is nothing quite like the undulating tingle you experience staring down the famous Cheltenham hill anticipating the almighty roar that signals the start of the festival.
Released into the Prestbury Park air ahead of the first race, just before 1.30 this afternoon, is the culmination of a whole season spent meticulously plotting horse’s routes, studying form, trends and conditions, and standing alongside two men and a dog on windswept courses in the November rain.
But Cheltenham really is a bug and an addiction that once consumed is never shaken. For the jump racing fan today, Tuesday, March 12 2013, represents all your birthdays, Christmases, Easters and Bar Mitzvahs rolled into one.
The old saying goes ‘all roads lead to Cheltenham’ – and via the M5 – many punters from Exeter will this morning be making that annual pilgrimage for the most magical four days of sport found anywhere.
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Finding a decent priced winner can be hard. There are no horses, trainers or jockeys not giving their absolute all. And that famous hill has no respect for reputation or sentiment and has proven a barrier too far for many so called bankers.
But kicking things off is the Supreme Novices Hurdle with Tony McCoy saddling the heavily fancied 7/4 shot My Tent Or Yours. But the festival’s opening race has been a graveyard for short priced favourites - Cue Card and Dunguib just two recent examples, and there is better value to be found elsewhere.
With ground softening all the time Un Atout, trained by Willie Mullins and unbeaten in his three starts, looks a lively contender as does Jezki, who has looked potent in smaller fields over in Ireland. But the verdict goes to last year’s Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner Champagne Fever who is expected to make a bold front run under the ride of Ruby Walsh. Paul Nichols Dodging Bullets is another with good each-way claims although the suspicion is he would prefer better ground.
Next up is another Grade One - the Arkle - a chase run over two miles.
The Arkle has been billed as a two-horse battle between Simonsig, the flashy Nicky Henderson grey, and Overturn, second in last year’s Champion Hurdle. It is hard to oppose last year’s Neptune winner Simonsig on his performances this year but he will be pushed all the way by the plucky Donald McCain nine-year-old who is unbeaten in his last three starts. Another to keep an eye out for is the Irish horse Arvika Ligeonniere – a Willie Mullins trained six year old who has really impressed in scoring two grade ones and will be hoping to gate-crash the party. Another strong front-runner and impressive stayer he has shone over in Ireland and looks decent each way value at around 8/1.
Tuesday’s feature race is of course the Stan James Champion Hurdle where 2011 winner Hurricane Fly will be attempting to go against all recent trends and re-claim his crown. Last year’s winner Rock on Ruby – trained by Harry Fry could be in the mix again while Zarkandar, unbeaten in three starts this season, looks a much stronger contender than when trailing in fifth last year. But my preference remains for Grandouet, a six-year-old trained by Nicky Henderson, who travels superbly and has that distinctive bit of class that identified him as a Champion Hurdle prospect from a young age. Admittedly noises from connections over the last few days haven’t been great and a heavy drift on the exchanges does give cause for concern.
But I had nailed my colours to the mast a long time ago with this one and, although it may currently be more with the heart than the head, I will be sticking by him.
My pick for the JLT handicap chase is Gary Moore’s Fruity O’Rooney who finished runner-up in the same race last year.
Quevega looks a banker to claim a record fifth David Nicholson Mare’s Hurdle with relative ease but with prohibitive odds, better value could be found in backing last year’s runner up Kentford Grey Lady or Une Artiste who are tipped to fill one of the minor placings.
In the Cross Country handicap chase it is always worth following Irish trainer Edna Bolger, who has largely dominated the race since its inception, and he looks to have another top chance with his sole representative Arabella Boy, the ride of Nina Carberry.
Venetia Williams’ yard has been in outstanding form and it would be no great shock to see her bag another winner with the progressive and fairly marked Shangani in the 5.20pm novice handicap chase
MY FIRST DAY BETS
1.30pm Champagne Fever
2.40pm Fruity O’Rooney
4pm Arabella Boy