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Wednesday 6 March 2024

Cheltenham Festival 2024 - update 6th March

An interesting day today (no, not the Budget) as the confirmed runners were named for the opening day of the Festival.  For me, the biggest disappointment was the continued demise of the NH Chase, which is the race with the longest history at the Cheltenham Festival. Was it the reduction of the trip for this race to 3m6f that was the nail in the coffin? I don't know, but what I do know is that there are only 10 potential runners in the race as of today; and I would not be surprised if only 7 or 8 go to post.

That's the same for the opening race of the Festival: the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Currently there are a potential 15 runners in the race; but I doubt Mullins will send 100/1 chances Gold Dancer and Supersundae to take part; and Kings Hill and Favour And Fortune are also outclassed and unlikely runners. Mullins is responsible for 7 of the remaining 11 potential runners, so let's look at the "non-Mullins" horses. My favourite is Firefox trained by Gordon Elliott: it looked like he didn't stay 2m4f LTO when fading after the final flight, but his run before that when he beat the current fav Ballyburn looked top class. It's probable that Ballyburn has improved since then, but then it's likely Firefox has too. Nicky Henderson has the 5yo Jeriko Du Reponet (owned by JP McManus), but I'm not sure that he's good enough, although you can never underestimate a Henderson entry. Henry de Bromhead has Slade Steel, who was comprehensively beaten by Ballyburn LTO. Ben Pauling sends the 5yo Tellherthename and he thinks a lot of this one who cost £200k; unfortunately the form is difficult to assess. 
Of the Mullins entries, it all hangs on Ballyburn: clearly a class horse, personally I think 2m4f is the way to go and that Mullins hasn't shown his hand yet suggests if he thinks he can win the Supreme with another horse he will. The JP McManus owned Mystical Power is also entered in the Baring Bingham over 2m5f on Wed, and as his dam Annie Power stayed 3-mile (as well as being good enough to win the Champion Hurdle) it would not surprise me if he went for that race instead (leaving McManus to have Jeriko Du Reponet representing him). So, that would leave Tullyhill who looked to have exceptional potential when winning LTO to be the main Mullins representative. Mullins does have a strong hand for the Baring Bingham as he also has Ile Atlantique who looks like he needs 2m5f. The Festival could have come a bit too soon for the 5yo's Mistergif and Anotherway; and Asian Master just isn't good enough (but could be used as a pace-maker). 
I think we will see Firefox / Jeriko Du Reponet / Slade Steel / Tellherthename / Ballyburn / Tullyhill and Asian Master line-up (7 runners) - and I'm on Firefox already at 10/1 and I'm also interested in taking the current odds of 4/1 on Tullyhill just-in-case Mullins sends Ballyburn for the Baring Bingham on Wednesday.

The Arkle Novices Chase over 2-mile is yet another race which could have under 10 going to post. Mullins holds 5 of the 15 entries confirmed today, and it's very likely that he will have the fav in Il Etait Temps who was last seen staying-on strong to win the Irish Arkle. Now, I like this horse but my worry is that he didn't repeat the level of form he showed last year at the Dublin Festival and either Cheltenham or Punchestown - but he should run a solid race. Will he, or won't he run Gaelic Warrior? Even if he does run him, after his display LTO when he appeared to hate running left-handed, I can't have him. If Townend doesn't ride him I won't have a penny on. The well-bred Facile Vega looks desperately wanting 2m4f and I expect to see that one run in the "Turners" on Thursday. There are a lot of good judges putting-up Hunters Yarn, and he clearly has an engine, but he's made significant errors in both his races and I don't think he's a 5/1 chance.  And I really cannot see him running Sharjah in this race at 11yo - he's been a good servant, time to put him out to grass. Of the others; my particular fav is Found A Fifty: he's done nothing wrong in his 4 chase races this season, and the form bares-up to inspection; not only that he has the stamina for 2m4f and he likes to lead. Some many ticks in the boxes. The 2021 Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios has recovered his form after 2 years on the side-lines. He beat Sa Fureur LTO (that one holds a couple of handicap entries) over 2-miles but I think he could be better over 2m4f,and he doesn't look value to me at 6/1. Personally, I don't think any of the other entries are good enough to win an Arkle, but I do think My Mate Mozzie is one of the best handicapped novice chasers around going into the Festival - he's going to take a some to be beaten in the Grand Annual on Wednesday.
After the Irish Arkle, I took 6/1 about both Il Etait Temps and Found A Fifty, and I'm going to increase my stake on Found A Fifty as I think he's bullet-proof.  

The withdrawal of Constitution Hill has thrown the Champion Hurdle into a quandary -how to make this a meaningful race? In some respects, I'm laughing - Nicky Henderson (in my opinion) has egg all over his face as, by his own insecurity, he's wasted this season. The defection also clearly demonstrates the lack of depth in the hurdling division - something I've been remarking on for years as Faugheen in 2015 was the last "proper" Champion Hurdler and had he not been injured he'd have surely followed-up in 2016 and 2017. This will be a virtual walkover for State Man.  I very much doubt the mare Lossiemouth will run being just a 5yo, and the same goes for Zarak The Brave. Gordon Elliott will probably provide the runner-up, being either Irish Point or Pied Piper. Personally, I think Pied Piper is nailed on for 2nd as that's the position he filled in the County Hurdle last season when just failing to win. However, he's apparently going for the County again (which is gutting for me as I have a 40/1 ew wager on him for the Champion Hurdle, plus a double with Firefox in the Supreme). As such, if none of those 3 run, then the most logical selection for 2nd is Irish Point, but he wasn't exactly quick as a novice hurdler, and he looks more comfortable over 2m4f.  Therefore, it's no surprise that Henderson and JP McManus have entered the Betfair Handicap Hurdle winner Iberico Lord; odds of 16/1 are available and that's fair. Note: £10 on State Man at 2/5 returns £14; whereas £5 eachway at 16/1 on Iberico Lord returns £21 for 2nd or 3rd place.

The Mares Hurdle over 2m4f is yet another race dominated by a Willie Mullins trained odds-on fav in Lossiemouth. The only chink in her formbook is that she's not won beyond 2m1f; and I expect that's why Mullins has also entered Ashroe Diamond who is guaranteed to stay.  However, I think Love Envoi could have something to say in this race, having chased home Honeysuckle last year; she's the one I think that looks the value at 10/1. Although Marie's Rock is a better mare now than she was when she won this race in 2022, she's not at the level she needs to be to win. The Mullins-trained Echoes In Rain and Gala Marceau are just not good enough on known form. It may be worth having a small ew wager on You Wear It Well who won the Mares Novice Hurdle last year and perhaps didn't stay 3-mile when going close at Doncaster. She flopped LTO so if there's a doubt about her being in top form she may not run; but she could sneak 3rd place at 50/1.

Now, the NH Chase over 3m6f. The current fav is Corbetts Cross, and yes, he's a horse of potential - that's why he started the "Albert Bartlett" Novice Hurdle over 3-miles at last years' Festival the 9/4 fav - he's failed to show that promise yet, but he has hinted at it. That he was easily beaten over 3-mile at Leopardstown on 29-Dec suggests he's not the strongest. The 2nd fav Embassy Gardens has a stronger profile having won both his chase starts with ease; he just may lack a bit of pace. The Gordon Elliott trained Salvatore Ziggy is interesting: he stays 3-mile as a hurdler and a chaser, and goes well off a long break - he easily has the strongest form. Nothing else in the race comes within 10lb of those 3, and this is a race which is invariably won by the highest rated runner (yes, it's seems obvious, but "dark horses" with only 1 or 2 races showing indeterminate ability, don't win the NH Chase). Odds of 9/2 are available on Salvatore Ziggy from Coral and Ladbrokes, and that may seem very generous come Tuesday afternoon

I will be having a long look at the Ultima Handicap Chase later in the week.

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