Christmas is over, it's a New Year from Sunday, and we have to start focusing on the Cheltenham Festival in March, which is less that 80 days away. We have a lot of graded races, and top handicaps, to weigh-up and decide on whether they have a bearing or not on the Festival graded races.
Looking at the Champion Hurdle first, as that race looks the simplest to solve, I'm sure we all wish that we'd put the mortgage on CONSTITUTION HILL @ 2/1 for this race last March (see my blog on 27Mar). The Irish challenge from trainer Willie Mullins comes from STATE MAN who won on 29Dec, and possibly Vauban. Referring again to my 27Mar blog, I wrote that State Man could be a potential Champion Hurdler in 2023 (but I don't have a record of his odds at the time). I'm surprised that Vauban ran this week as I think he will be a better horse in the 2023-24 season, but perhaps Mullins wants a back-up plan should State Man not be able to run at Cheltenham. As for Honeysuckle, I think she's had her day in the sun. However, she may represent the only value left in the betting in the w/o the fav market for which she's 7/2 as - on her best form and with the mares' allowance - she could well be 2nd.
Now the QMCC, and on my ratings this season there's not much between ENERGUMENE and EDWARDSTONE. With Shishkin unlikely to try 2-miles again, and (despite a good win at Leopardstown) Blue Lord is yet to top 160 on my ratings (putting him over 10lb below my top-rated), there is scope for a rank outsider to take 3rd place. It won't be Greanteen who is best going right-handed, and (after a poor run behind Blue Lord) we won't see Chancun Pour Soi at Cheltenham again, so for me NUBE NEGRA @ 33/1 fits the bill. He never runs a poor race at Cheltenham, and was 2nd in the QMCC in 2021 (when going off at 11/1), so as long as the ground isn't soft he looks a great eachway wager. Sure, he was well behind Editeur De Gite at Kempton on 27Dec (Edwardstone falling mid-race), and maybe I'm clutching at straws, but I think he's much better suited going left-handed. Editeur De Gite is an interesting horse as he's clearly a late improver, and if he could repeat this effort at the Festival he will be very interesting there, whatever race he goes for.
The Ryanair Chase has been dominated by Willie Mullins and Allaho for the past few seasons, and the last time we saw Allaho he looked better than ever, and he will only be a 9yo come March. It will be interesting if Shishkin goes for this race as it looks perfect for him at this time, and odds of 8/1 are worth a small wager as if he does line-up for this he will likely go off at 3/1. There wasn't a performance over the last week that puts anything into contention, as the Irish trained Conflated won a weak Grade 1 - pretty much as he liked - and he is one for the minor places (along with Fakir D'oudairies: and both are at 12/1) if Shishkin misses the race.
The betting for the Stayers' Hurdle has been given a shuffle due to the result of the Christmas Hurdle won by HOME BY THE LEE. There's no doubt HBTL has improved a lot since stepping-up to 3-miles, but he was comprehensively beaten in the Stayers' last March when it was won for the 2nd-time by FLOORING PORTER. I'm not sure HBTL is a better horse now, but he is being ridden with more confidence. Flooring Porter loves Cheltenham, and he went into the race last year without a win in 12 months and it's likely he's going to do the same now. Odds of 8/1 (Bet365) look generous, and he looks a banker for eachway doubles and trebles, as he may well find one to good, but not three. I certainly can't see Klassical Dream improving on last years' 5th place; and we've not seen Blazing Khal since December 2021. Paisley Park retains his form, and is a consistent performer, but he's yet to better Flooring Porter and age is not on his side. After those, you are scrabbling around amongst non-proven stayers and so-called "improvers".
Finally, we have the Gold Cup with the betting dominated by Galopin Des Champs. There's no doubt that GDC is a top-class horse, but the Gold Cup trip of 3m2f can find out even the best of horses. Given that he won a Grade 1 novice hurdle over 3-mile beating proven stayers Gentlemansgame, Stattler and Vanillier, then it's likely he will stay the Gold Cup trip. There are problems with A Plus Tard who won the race last year with one of the best performances of the last 20 years, and I can't see him running in the race. For me, the competition for the race will come from L'Homme Presse, Protektorat and Bravemansgame, and possibly Noble Yeats. If STATTLER runs well on 1st Jan at Tramore, a race won by dual Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo for the past 4 seasons, then he could well go off the 2nd fav - he's currently 16/1 for the GC and having won the NH Chase over 3m6f last March at the Festival we know the horse handles the course and stays the trip.