Sportsmail’s racing expert Robin Goodfellow dishes out his tips for day one of the Cheltenham Festival featuring the Champion Hurdle.
SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE
(1.30: GRADE ONE — 2 MILES AND ½ FURLONG)
The decision to remove the hood from Al Dancer and use ear plugs for the biggest race of his season looks a strange move but, providing Sam Twiston-Davies can keep his mount in check, he looks a huge player given he boasts track experience, excellent form in big fields and is a sound jumper.
The last 10 winners had run four or five times over hurdles, so experience is a vital asset and the French-bred FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES does not fail on that score given he has jumped fences and hurdles in France before joining Joseph O’Brien.
Two impressive victories, including at this venue on Trials Day, have stamped him as a class performer for new owner JP McManus and he makes plenty of appeal. The tough Grand Sancy is another to consider.
BEST BET: FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES 6-1
NEXT BEST: AL DANCER 9-2
Two impressive victories have stamped Fakir D’Oudairies as a class performer for JP McManus
ARKLE TROPHY CHASE
(2.10: GRADE ONE — 2 MILES)
There appears the possibility of a strong gallop in this event with a number of confirmed trailblazers in opposition — and that could suit HARDLINE who is likely to be the subject of a trademark ride from a patient Davy Russell.
Experience has been a valuable asset in recent times, with only three of the past 17 winners arriving at Cheltenham with less than three runs over fences. Hardline, trained by Gordon Elliott, began his chasing career last October with a 15-length win at Fairyhouse.
A Grade One chase victory at Limerick on Boxing Day ensures he complies with another strong trend of past winners, with 14 of the last 17 having won a Grade One or Grade Two race over fences before capturing an Arkle. Ornua jumps beautifully and stays well, so could last longer than some of his fellow front-runners.
BEST BET: HARDLINE 6-1
NEXT BEST: ORNUA 12-1
The classy Apple’s Jade is sure to make a bold bid from the front in the Champion Hurdle
ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE
(2.50: GRADE THREE — 3 MILES AND 1 FURLONG)
Lightly-raced chasers have enjoyed a fine record in this race in recent seasons so, with just eight previous starts over fences, MISTER WHITAKER may prove the answer to a difficult puzzle.
Only one of the last 10 winners had contested this handicap without Festival experience, so the selection qualifies courtesy of his hard-fought victory in the novices’ handicap chase 12 months ago.
A reappearance success at Carlisle (2m4f) saw him finish powerfully and two outings in hot handicaps have indicated that Mick Channon’s gelding may be ready for a step-up to three miles.
Last year’s winner Coo Star Sivola has enjoyed a campaign which revolves around a repeat bid, while Give Me A Copper is well regarded and attractively handicapped.
BEST BET: MISTER WHITAKER 8-1
NEXT BEST: COO STAR SIVOLA 10-1
(3.30: GRADE ONE — 2 MILES)
A fascinating renewal with a selection of classy mares intent on denying BUVEUR D’AIR an historic third victory in the race.
Last year’s winner produced a rather more workmanlike display to capture the title but trainer Nicky Henderson felt he was suffering from a bug that day and the defeat of Melon should not be taken literally.
His two victories this term have been achieved with the minimum of fuss and the defeat sustained on Boxing Day at the hands of Verdana Blue owed a little to his rider trying to give him as easier a race as possible.
The classy Apple’s Jade is sure to make a bold bid from the front, while the rain will aid Laurina and her powerful stride, but Buveur D’Air narrowly gains the vote.
BEST BET: BUVEUR D’AIR 9-4
NEXT BEST: APPLE’S JADE 2-1
Benie Des Dieux is the red-hot favourite to continue Willie Mullins’ domination of Mares’ Hurdle
OLBG MARES’ HURDLE
4.10: GRADE ONE — 2 MILES AND 4 FURLONGS
Ruby Walsh has stated that BENIE DES DIEUX is his best ride of the week and, with trainer Willie Mullins having won nine of the last 10 runnings of this race, it is easy to envisage her delivering a huge performance, especially as she had Apple’s Jade in arrears in her victory 12 months ago.
Like a number of the stable’s winners in this race, she arrives at Cheltenham on the back of a lengthy absence, but that fails to dent confidence in her chance of victory.
Stablemates Limini and Stormy Ireland are respected, but British mares Lady Buttons and Roksana are smart in their own right and the latter was entitled to need her comeback at Sandown behind Buveur D’Air.
One horse which could run well at a massive price is Cap Soleil, who was runner-up to Laurina here 12 months ago and loves the track.
BEST BET: BENIE DES DIEUX 10-11
NEXT BEST: CAP SOLEIL 25-1
CLOSE BROTHERS CHASE
4.50: HANDICAP — 2 MILES AND 4 FURLONGS
Irish novices dominate the head of the market with Riders Onthe Storm, A Plus Tard and Tower Bridge possessing profiles which make them extremely interesting dipping into a handicap of this nature.
The trio look to have enjoyed a campaign which has revolved around qualifying for this race and it would be no great surprise to see any of them prove too strong for the home contingent, with A Plus Tard arguably the most interesting with two big-field wins on his CV.
However, HIGHWAY ONE O ONE already possesses valuable course experience courtesy of a fine second to Kildisart on Trials Day and the horse, trained by Chris Gordon, was far from disgraced in the Grade One Henry VIII Chase, won by Dynamite Dollars. He finished upsides leading Arkle hope Lalor that day, so may still be fairly treated.
BEST BET: HIGHWAY ONE O ONE 12-1
NEXT BEST: A PLUS TARD 6-1
NATIONAL HUNT CHASE
5.30: GRADE TWO — 4 MILES
Ok Corral and Ballyward represent two of jumping’s powerhouses and have impressed with smooth victories at a good level.
OK Corral, trained by Nicky Henderson, raced keenly at Warwick but saw out the trip well and is likely to be thereabouts if settling better. Ballyward, trained by Willie Mullins, looks a more straightforward runner on the evidence of his powerful Naas victory.
However, chasing experience has been a vital attribute in recent seasons, with five of the last nine winners enjoying their 10th start or more over fences, so ATLANTA ABLAZE makes some appeal.
Ms Parfois was runner-up in this race 12 months ago, but the selection impressed with a strong staying display at Wincanton last time, so could spring a surprise.
BEST BET: ATLANTA ABLAZE 16-1
NEXT BEST: BALLYWARD 5-2
PETER SCUDAMORE – EIGHT TIMES CHAMPION JOCKEY
APPLE’S JADE has had a fantastic season and Laurina has the potential to be much better than anything we have previously seen from her, but the bet for me in the Champion Hurdle has to be BUVEUR D’AIR.
He lost favouritism at the weekend for the first time since he landed this race for a second time a year ago — and that is not justified.
Buveur D’Air has been beaten this season but his overall record is good and he comes into the race off a similar preparation to 12 months ago. His trainer Nicky Henderson also believes he was not 100 per cent and incubating a bug when he won last year. Quite simply, he has the best form in the race.
Laurina was very impressive when she won the Mares Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s meeting but her two races this season have not told us much. Her price is based more on reputation than form. BENIE DES DIEUX defends her title in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and looks one of the week’s more sure-fire winners.
BIG RIVER, trained by my partner Lucinda Russell, has been moving really well in and is capable of hitting the frame in the Ultima Handicap Chase.
HAYLEY MOORE – PRESENTER FOR SKY SPORTS RACING
Southampton and England strikerturned trainer Mick Channon Festival with the potential to hit the back of the net twice with MISTER WHITAKER and GLEN FORSA.
Mister Whitaker has good course form having won the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase on this day 12 months ago.
There has been talk of stepping the gelding up to the three miles of today’s race for some time, but this is the first time he has tried the trip.
His pedigree suggests the longer distance should suit him and he looks to have been crying out for this stiffer stamina test.
Another positive is the booking of top jockey Brian Hughes. It is the first time he has been back on board since he partnered Mister Whitaker to his 2018 Festival win.
Henrietta Knight, the trainer who guided the great Best Mate to his three Gold Cups, has been involved in the jumping tuition of Channon’s Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase hope Glen Forsa.
Glen Forsa’s jumping was slick and quick when he beat Kalashnikov at Sandown. That effort earned him many admirers.
CAPTAIN HEATH (MARCUS TOWNEND)
TOWER BRIDGE is a Grade One-winning novice hurdler who has gradually been getting the hang of things over fences. With headgear and a tongue strap fitted for the first time, he is a very interesting contender for trainer Joseph O’Brien in the competitive Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase.
FORMCAST (NIGEL TAYLOR)
APPLE’S JADE is unbeaten after four very easy victories this season and she was an impressive winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle last month. On that form, the mare looks a good bet to beat the reigning Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air.
CAPTAIN HEATH’S SELECTIONS
1.30 FELIX DESJY (EW) 20-1
2.10 KALASHNIKOV (EW ) 10-1
2.50 NOBLE ENDEAVOR 16-1
3.30 BUVEUR D’AIR 9-4
4.10 ROKSANA (EW ) 10-1
4.50 TOWER BRIDGE 8-1
5.30 JERRYSBACK 12-1
1.30 FAKIR D’OUDAIRIES 6-1
2.10 GLEN FORSA 4-1
2.50 CRUCIAL ROLE 16-1
3.30 APPLE ‘S JADE 15-8
4.10 BENIE DES DIEUX 10-11
4.50 GOOD MAN PAT 14-1
5.30 OK CORRAL 5-2
BEAT THE FAVOURITE
Our football experts like to go against the grain with their tips. Here are their picks to trounce today’s fancied runners…
JAMIE REDKNAPP: 5.20 BALLYWARD
CHRIS SUTTON: 2.50 MR WHITAKER
CELEBRITY NAP – CHARLIE AUSTIN (Southampton striker and founder member of successful racing syndicate Excel Racing): 3.30 LAURINA
WINNERS ENCLOSURE – BEST BETS, BEST ODDS WITH LADBROKES’ NICOLA McGEADY
It Is a seriously competitive first day of the Festival but the banker has to be Benie Des Dieux in the Mares’ Hurdle.
Both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have said she is their best chance of the week and punters have latched on to that. She beat Apple’s Jade in this race last year and making a case against her is tricky.
The Champion Hurdle is ultra-competitive and we expect to lay all of the front three in the market. With the 7lb mares’ allowance, we give Apple’s Jade the edge. She has had an exceptional season and can stop Buveur D’Air completing the hat-trick.