Racing pundit previews the challengers to watch out for on the opening day
This year at Cheltenham, it is an open-looking Champion Hurdle.
There is no standout, no automatic favourite, no Faugheen, no Annie Power. It is a lesser race for the absence of those two Willie Mullins stars in terms of quality, no question, but it is no less intriguing for all of that.
It looks like Yanworth has grabbed the favourite’s mantle and made it his own. The Alan King-trained gelding was a top class novice last season. His only defeat was at the hooves of Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune Hurdle, and he has continued to progress this season. He didn’t impress everyone when he won last time at Wincanton, but he is a horse who usually seems to find a way to win, he leaves the impression that he only just does as much as he needs to do, and he will be much better suited by Cheltenham’s undulations than he was by the flat and sharp Wincanton circuit.
Buveur D’Air has been re-routed from novice chasing to the Champion Hurdle. Owned, like Yanworth, by JP McManus, the Nicky Henderson-trained gelding was another progressive novice last season.
Winner of his two novice chases earlier this term, he was fully expected to win the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month on his return to the smaller obstacles, and he duly did, winning easily with minimum fuss and impressing with his jumping.
A view of Cheltenham race course on the eve of the festival ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Often when a horse returns to hurdles after jumping fences, he can be inefficient at his hurdles, he can be high and deliberate over them, but that was not the case with Buveur D’Air. As rider Barry Geraghty said afterwards, he jumped his hurdles as if he had never been jumping fences.
The main concern about Buveur D’Air is that he seems to have a preference for easy ground, and the drying conditions at Cheltenham are not in his favour.
From a betting perspective, the value of the race may lie with Petit Mouchoir. The Gigginstown House horse was a progressive novice hurdler last season for Willie Mullins, and he has continued that progression this term for Henry de Bromhead.
He probably would have won the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle at the end of December if he had not come down at the third last flight, but he put that lapse behind him quite emphatically when he danced in in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival.
He led from early that day, set a solid even tempo and quickened impressively from the home turn to come clear of multiple Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon.
Ruby Walsh and trainer Willie Mullins ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
He returned to the Foxrock track for the Irish Champion Hurdle in January, and he put up a similar performance. He had Nichols Canyon beaten again when that rival came down at the final flight, and he clocked a fast time. Still just a six-year-old, he could improve again on that performance, and he probably doesn’t have to improve that much to take him close in the Champion Hurdle.
There are three other Grade 1 races on Tuesday. It is understandable that Melon is favourite for the curtain-raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, more for the regard in which he appears to be held by Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh than for what he has actually achieved on the racecourse.
Altior is long odds-on for the Arkle Trophy and, barring something unforeseen, he really should win. Winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle on this day last year, he has impressed with everything that he has done over fences this season. He is the stand-out two-mile novice chaser and, if he were running in the Champion Chase on Wednesday instead of in the Arkle on Tuesday, he would be a worthy adversary for Douvan.
The fourth and final Grade 1 race on Tuesday, the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle, could develop into an Irish showdown, with the Willie Mullins/Susannah Ricci duo Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag taking on the Gordon Elliott-trained Apple’s Jade (owned by Gigginstown House Stud) and the Gavin Cromwell-trained Jer’s Girl (owned by JP McManus).
Can you call it? Not easy. Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride Limini, and that could be key.