Monday, 9 March 2020

Cheltenham Festival Day One: Pentland Just Champion on Day One

The Cheltenham Festival is back upon us once again having seen off extreme weather and, hopefully, the coronavirus outbreak too.

Day one gets off to its usual frantic start with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in which we’ve gone for one to upset the favourites in the market.

1.30 (Supreme Novices’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – FIDDLERONTHEROOF

An exciting renewal of the Supreme and one in which there has been serious money for Willie Mullins to follow-up the win he managed last year with Klassical Dream.

His Asterion Forlonge, under the same ownership as long-time favourite Shiskin of Nicky Henderson’s yard, has overtaken his rival in the market on the run-up to the opening day despite carrying the second-choice colours.

We’ve found it incredibly hard to split the two as well on all known evidence and both look more than capable of putting up a bold show, however having registered his equally impressive speed figures in soft and heavy ground, Colin Tizzard’s Fiddlerontheroof is fancied instead to outpace them when it counts before staying on to the line.

If his hat-trick is landed we’ll be off to a great start, with Willie Mullins and JP McManus’ Elixir D’ainay also fancied to run well at a price.

2.10 (Arkle Challenge Trophy – Grade 1) – BREWIN’UPASTORM

Too many British trainers keep their Cheltenham Festival hopes off the track for too long and Olly Murphy falls into that category when it comes to discussing Brewin’upastorm, but he has been having some away days and so as long as he is indeed fit enough for this then he looks the best horse in the race to us.

A perfect two from two over fences; he has proven he can handle a stiff track, has enough pace which is needed on the Old Course to get into position, has run well on soft ground and is also among the horses with the most potential improvement left to come.

Esprit Du Large could arguably be overpriced for Evan Williams and Notebook is the obvious danger to all, while Al Dancer shouldn’t be overlooked.

2.50 (Ultima Handicap Chase – Grade 3) – THE CONDITIONAL

With so much in his favour in terms of track, trip, ground and weight it’s perhaps surprising that this course and distance winner and Ladbrokes Trophy runner-up isn’t favourite.

That honour goes to Vinndication who may just be carrying too much, while there could be big runs coming from Discorama and Who Dares Wins too.

David Bridgwater’s The Conditional however has so much in his favour that he’s impossible to ignore and he may well provide his yard with a massive win on the opening day.

3.30 (Champion Hurdle – Grade 1) – PENTLAND HILLS

A competitive renewal of the day one highlight, but certainly not the strongest we’ve ever seen.  Favourite Epatante is arguably no better at the weights over this sort of track than around six other contenders in the race, but in the absence of Buveur D’Air and with topsy-turvy form from the British prep races the Irish Champion Hurdle form could be worth more than just a second look.

With winner Honeysuckle not being aimed at this race, it falls to Darver Star to represent that form and he may do so very well however there may yet be a home winner and one indeed for trainer of the favourite Nicky Henderson in the shape of Pentland Hills, the 2019 Triumph Hurdle winner.

His form is among the best on offer here and, while he was beaten last time, he will be better on this ground and for the benefit of his recent breathing operation.

4.10 (Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle – Grade 1) – HONEYSUCKLE

On paper there aren’t too many mares who should get into this uncompetitive affair, save for perhaps Stormy Ireland running into a place maybe, but it’s her teammate Benie Des Dieux who once again dominates the betting for this race.

The winner in 2018, she became one of Ruby Walsh’s unfortunate infamous last-flight fallers when trying to double-up last year but she has a whole new challenge this time around anyway in the shape of Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle.

Given the form this year as mentioned above, Henry De Bromhead could have gone for the big one 40 minutes earlier but she’s arguably better over this 2½-mile trip and she looks good value to overturn the jolly.

4.50 (Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase – Listed Race) – IMPERIAL AURA

In a race in which the handicap is so tight, things look competitive on paper but perhaps are much less so in reality.

It’s doubtful that all of these 20 runners are within 7lbs of each other really, so while it’s true that some may well show a big improvement from their last run to this one given that they are novices, a race of this nature often needs a horse who has the requisite experience and that in this case is undoubtedly Imperial Aura.

Second to Pym over an apparently unsuitable 3m1½f here back in December, Kim Bailey’s seven-year-old improved on that when runner-up in a course and distance novice handicap in January and with the form working out well, he is taken to go one better now at the expense of the overpriced Paint The Dream.

5.30 (National Hunt Challenge Cup – Grade 2) – NEWTIDE

We have another typically hot favourite from the Willie Mullins yard in the shape of Carefully Selected here, but he appears to have been winning well without necessarily improving massively and around here he could be vulnerable.

The one to catch him out might just be Newtide.  A winner when idling at Ffos Las, he followed-up at Wetherby but was underestimated having initially not been able to go with them over three miles and having to swerve.  The form of that race therefore can be upgraded in the context of him going over 3m6f here and another step forward would see him right in the front rank, maybe giving Kim Bailey a wonderful day.

Springfield Fox is best of the rest.

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