The Cheltenham Festival, the most eagerly anticipated four days in the racing calendar is just FOUR weeks away! At 1:30pm on Tuesday 13th March, we will hear the famous Cheltenham roar as the tapes go up for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first of 28 races that will see reputations won and lost, champions crowned, and inevitable heartbreak for some.
The last handful of trial races take place over the next two weekends, meaning that the murky waters of the Ante-Post markets usually become a fraction clearer. However, for many reasons, this is just not the case this year. One of the main culprits for this uncertainty is Irish trainer Willie Mullins. Whether you like it or not, the annual game of Willie Mullins Cheltenham Festival Bingo is in full swing. Plans for the likes of Yorkhill, Min, Un De Sceaux and Douvan are very much up in the air and it would take a brave man to foresee what he’ll do with many of his stable stars. To put these 'bingo' antics into context, less than a month ago Yorkhill was Mullins’ chief Gold Cup (3 & ¼ miles) contender, and was available at 6/1. He is now being primed for a tilt at the Champion Chase (2 miles), but could conceivably be re-routed for the Champion Hurdle, for which he is 4/1 with Bet365, playing havoc with Ante-Post punters' best laid plans.
Nevertheless, with non-runner no bet concessions readily available (Bet365, SkyBet and Paddy Power), here are Racing Breaks’ ante-post selections starting with the opening day.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle (2 Miles)
This is a race that has been dominated by the big guns of the training ranks in the last 5 years and this year looks set to follow that pattern. We had been waiting all season for a horse to put in a performance that set the bar high for the Supreme, and Getabird delivered just that in the Moscow Flyer Novices’ Hurdle, the very same race Mullins has claimed for owner Rich Ricci in the past with Mikael D’Haguenet, Vautour and Douvan before they all went on to triumph at the Festival. He was undoubtedly impressive and jumped extremely well, but being cut to 5/2 is surely a knee-jerk reaction to the lack of obvious challengers at this stage. Patrick Mullins stole a four-length lead at the start and was able to dictate the pace on what was favourably soft ground whilst was also receiving 6lbs from his closest rival, Mengli Khan.
The principal British contender at this stage is Claimantakinforgan for the in-form Nicky Henderson yard. He was 3rd in last year’s Champion Bumper, so we know he handles the track, which is more than you can say about most in this race. He is tough, and slick over hurdles, but hasn't yet proved he is quite classy enough to merit backing him at 7/1. While it's probable that the 6 year old will have one more run before the Festival, Henderson is likely to find an easier engagement on ground that isn’t bottomless. If so, we won't learn much more about him, and he should be a similar price when March comes around.
My ante-post selection for the race is Sharjah. From the same connections as the favourite, he would have run out an impressive winner of the Grade 1 Future Champions Novices’ hurdle but for falling at the last. He will run in the Deloitte Novices’ Hurdle next weekend and I expect him to win that. He is a horse that travels with supreme ease and a fast run race at Cheltenham on decent ground will be perfect for him. If he wins next weekend, he will shorten for the Supreme. There is obviously the chance that Mullins/Ricci/Walsh will ensure that Sharjah and Getabird will be kept apart - with one going for the Ballymore - but if it is Sharjah that is their choice for the Supreme, he will be favourite for the race so 7/1 is worth taking. If he doesn’t run, you will of course get your money back.
SELECTION: SHARJAH 1pt win @ 7/1 (Bet365, SkyBet) Non-runner no bet
Unibet Champion Hurdle (2 Miles)
For anyone in any doubt, Buveur D’Air is an exceptional two-mile hurdler. He effortlessly demolished a decent Champion Hurdle field last year and has grown into an even bigger beast this year. Something will have to go very wrong for him not to claim a second Unibet Champion Hurdle, and aged only 7, he can go onto emulate the great Istabraq and win a third next year for JP McManus - if he stays healthy. That being said, I am not going to suggest backing him at the current prices of around 4/6. He will only become a betting proposition if Faugheen shows some form and wins next weekend.
Faugheen ‘The Machine’ has been one of the most talked about horses in recent times, and for good reason. His ability to pulverise the opposition was astonishing and, at his best, he was as good a hurdler as we’ve seen since the aforementioned Istabraq. However, we will never see Faugheen back to his best, and those that believe that he can beat an on-song Buveur D’Air in March need their heads testing.
The ante-post angle in this race again revolves around another Willie Mullins horse. Around this time last year, Melon was the talking horse of Cheltenham. He burst onto the scene when making light work of his hurdling debut before being sent off at 3/1 fav for the Supreme on only his second start over obstacles. He showed plenty of inexperience and jumped clumsily, finishing second behind the loveable, quirky but ultimately very talented Labaik. He was 8 lengths clear of 3rd that day. In his three runs since, he has managed to slightly frustrate his connections, while also proving that he is riddled with talent. His last start saw him pitched against some hardy Champion Hurdle rivals in The New One, My Tent Or Yours and Ch’Tibello. He had to give My Tent Or Yours 6lbs that day and in a strongly run Champion Hurdle should have his beating. Melon has the most progressive profile and if he can improve again in next weekend’s Irish Champion Hurdle then the 4/1 available in the betting without Buveur D’Air market, is worth taking. Ruby Walsh’s quotes since his last run tell their own story: “He’s come forward for the run in Cheltenham. That was his first run with the big boys. He’s definitely a better horse for it. The Champion Hurdle will be a stronger-run race, and on a different track – it’s on the Old Course – so that will definitely suit him.”
2pts win Melon @ 4/1 (betting without Buveur D’Air - https://www.oddschecker.com/cheltenham-festival/champion-hurdle/w-o-buveur-dair)