With the talking all done we can finally get down to the serious business of the 2019 Cheltenham Festival and day one promises to get us off to a terrific start, seven fantastic races being scheduled to take place in front of an expected 70,000 crowd at Prestbury Park.
New champions are always crowned of course but it could be a returning title-holder who lights up day one as Buveur D’Air attempts to win a third Champion Hurdle at 3.30 while many a punter’s banker of the week, Benie Des Dieux, tries to win the Mares’ Hurdle for a second time at 4.10.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Kalashnikov attempts to go one better in the Arkle Chase at 2.10 but we start with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and a horse that could get JP McManus’s festival off to a flyer.
1.30 (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES
Although on the books it looks a tough ask for a 4yo to win this, Joseph O’Brien seems confident and strictly speaking on form this one seems the one to beat for us following his comfortable win here on Trials Day in January.
Although most of the money will be going the way of Klassical Dream and Al Dancer, it’s probably more likely that Angels Breath will be the biggest danger to the selection while we should not forget about Tolworth Hurdle winner Elixir Du Nutz who retains potential.
Joseph O’Brien has already proven himself with an unofficial Festival win as well as successes in the Melbourne Cup and Irish Derby on the flat and we’ll back his judgement that this is the right race for Fakir D’oudairies.
2.10 (Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase – Grade 1) – KALASHNIKOV
There are some negatives at a glance with Amy Murphy’s challenger, but a closer look at his profile reveals him to be arguably the number one contender here on the book.
His bloodless win on his chasing debut was achieved on soft ground, which he likes, with things coming a bit quick for him when putting in a decent performance behind Dynamite Dollars next time. He was way off his game when well behind Glen Forsa in the three-runner Kingmaker Novices’ Chase but even a repeat of his Wayward Lad second should have been enough to beat a horse that is now favourite for this race.
Many think he needs more of a test, but given the prevailing conditions and the layout of this track he’ll essentially get that here even over two miles and he can prove his worth ahead of Lalor, who may want things a little quicker, and the aforementioned Mick Channon horse Glen Forsa.
2.50 (Ultima Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – MAGIC OF LIGHT
Jessica Harrington’s versatile and improving mare may have enough at these weights to come out on top having won well at Newbury and Ascot already this season over both fences and hurdles.
Nicky Henderson’s Beware The Bear can perhaps give her most to do but at a very acceptable price it’s the proven stayer who can wear them down and take the £61,000 first prize.
3.30 (Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy – Grade 1) – BUVEUR D’AIR
The fantastic double Champion Hurdle winner could become the awesome triple Champion Hurdle winner on Tuesday and at much better odds than we’d foreseen when the season started.
Having taken this race on good-to-soft ground in 2017 and on heavy in 2018, he’s beaten all comers including the elements on his journey and we’re taking him to do so once again.
Nicky Henderson’s star began his season at Newcastle with a stunning display in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle before cantering to his usual easy prep wins ahead of Cheltenham and with a career best performance on the cards today, he should still have too much for the popular Apple’s Jade while the constantly underrated Sharjah may well be overpriced to grab a place.
4.10 (Mares’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – BENIE DES DIEUX
Ordinarily we’d look for an alternative to a mare who could go off at odds-on in a festival race having her first outing of the season, but she only needs to be at around 90% of her best to win this and she remains first choice for connections ahead of main danger Limini with jockey Ruby Walsh reporting her to be giving him a great feel at home.
Willie Mullins may well be going to bed on Monday night dreaming of a 1-2-3 in this race with his Stormy Ireland probably next in all things considered, though nobody will begrudge Benie Des Dieux a second win in this race.
4.50 (Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase – Listed Race) – SPRINGTOWN LAKE
He’ll need to leave some rather questionable Cheltenham hurdle form behind, but Philip Hobbs’s Springtown Lake is a classy individual and looks potentially very well handicapped for this and so gets the vote.
His chase debut form in particular has held up very well and he looks to have everything needed to see this race out right to the line at the probable expense of Highway One O One and Good Man Pat.
5.30 (National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase – Grade 2) – JERRYSBACK
We have to take a slight leap of faith here in as much as we wouldn’t usually second guess such eminent connections, so while Ok Corral is JP McManus’s first choice it’s possible he could be outgunned by apparent second choice Jerrysback.
Philip Hobbs’s 7-year-old is improving all the time and should relish these conditions and extreme distance, so as long as he sees out the trip he may well get the better of the Nicky Henderson runner who rates as the main danger in the last.
Ballyward has some pretty strong form and has been well punted in the last few days, but while he’s competitive there’s nothing in his profile to say he is a level above this field and so his price is very skinny indeed.