Cheltenham Festival News

Cheltenham Festival: connections rate their hopes for Tuesday

Mon 13 Mar 2023

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Cheltenham clerk of the course Jon Pullin expects the Festival to begin on soft ground ahead of week which promises to bring a mix of weather to Prestbury Park.

While strong winds around Monday lunchtime were helping the course to dry slightly, squally showers were forecast into Monday evening and were expected the keep the going soft on the Old course, which is used on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It is expected to dip below freezing on Tuesday evening while later in the week double-figure temperatures are anticipated, along with further bands of rain, so the advice to racegoers is be prepared for a bit of everything.

“It (the ground) has taken the rain we’ve had recently really well. We had four millimetres of rain on the Old course, so we’re soft ground for Tuesday and Wednesday at the moment,” said Pullin. “We’re soft, good to soft in places on the New course so we’re in good shape.

“It will dry back a little bit today but we do have some showers moving in later on, hopefully nothing too significant volume-wise, but that may well negate any improvement that we get during the day.

“There’s the chance of showers early tomorrow morning and they could be sleety but the rest of the day should be mainly dry.

“The temperature drops sharply overnight, possibly as low as minus 2C, but by 7/8am they are expected to be positive figures and there’s a decent soil temperature due to the last two days being in double digits and it will only be a one-night frost. Against that is the fact we’ll have raced on Tuesday and opened it up a little bit, but we are not too concerned.

“A band of rain is due to blow in on Wednesday and that will stay around for Thursday as well, so we could see 5-10mm over Wednesday and Thursday.

“We had to water in February, just from a grass health point of view. We wouldn’t be too far away from where we are without it, we’d have aimed for good to soft and we’ll probably start on soft, so we’re happy with what we’ve done.”

1.30: Marine Nationale carries plenty of confidence

1.30 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y__

Barry Connell is quietly confident Marine Nationale can land the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the opening race of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday.

A winner of two bumpers, a maiden hurdle and the Grade One Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, he remains unbeaten for the Kildare handler.

The famous Cheltenham roar will be heard at the start of the extended two-mile contest, where the six-year-old takes on 13 opponents.

It is a field dominated by Irish-trained runners, with last year’s Champion Bumper winner and subsequent Leopardstown Grade One novice hurdle winner, the Willie Mullins-trained Facile Vega, heading the market.

Il Etait Temps, who upset much-vaunted stablemate Facile Vega in the Tattersalls Ireland Novice Hurdle on his last run at Leopardstown, is also among the leading protagonists.

Connell feels Marine Nationale is the one to beat, however. “He is a late developer. He has only just started running in the last year,” he said. “Marine has done us proud.

“Last time, in the Grade One, not a lot went right for him. The ground turned soft. But he has a great temperament. He might race a little bit exuberantly, but he is not burning any energy.

“He is in great shape and we are happy with how the preparation has gone. It has gone without a hiccup really. He is a Grade One winner. We are not going there chancing our arm with a maiden hurdle winner.”

Connell also appears to have a strong chance with Good Land in Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

He added: “They both have the credentials and I think they have all the attributes you need to be successful in a Grade One at Cheltenham. They are both strong travellers with plenty of stamina, good temperaments and they jump great.

“It’s not a place you go with social runners – you are better off going somewhere else. I wouldn’t be taking them if I didn’t think we had a genuine chance of winning – and I think they both have.

Il Etait Temps and Danny Mullins upset Facile Vega last time
Il Etait Temps and Danny Mullins upset Facile Vega last time

“If we get the rub of the green – the usual caveats in the two races – I think they will be hard to beat.”

Winner of the Champion Bumper 12 months ago, Facile Vega may top the betting as he bids to bounce back from a disappointing effort when weakening quickly at Leopardstown last month, yet Mullins feels Il Etait Temps should not be forgotten, provided he settles.

He said: “I’ve always thought he was fair horse, which is why we ran him in the races we did last year and he ended up being a novice for this year. What’s disappointed me about him this year was his jumping – he just wasn’t putting it together.

“Even at the Dublin Racing Festival he made a mistake at the first, but Danny (Mullins) said to me when he turned down the back, he pinged his hurdles and put it all together.

Patrick Mullins and Facile Vega at Cheltenham last year
Patrick Mullins and Facile Vega at Cheltenham last year

“I know the two in front made things easier for him, but he’s going to keep learning and once he gets it all together, who knows how good he could be?

“He’s very keen, but once he learns to settle I think his jumping will come together and he’ll improve again. I think he’s going to be a proper Grade One horse.”

Reflecting on Facile Vega’s defeat when hosting a press stable visit last month, Mullins said: “I had resigned when I saw what was happening going past the winning post first time round. I said ‘unless he’s an absolute aeroplane, they can’t keep that up’.

“Someone said the time going to the fourth or fifth hurdle was a furlong quicker than the Irish Champion Hurdle – it was headless what went on. I was disappointed what happened, not that he was beaten as every horse gets beaten at some stage.

“Paul (Townend) knows himself and he’ll adjust things for the next day on the different horses that he rode. When you go to big races like that you learn a lot about your horse and he’ll have all that sorted for the next day.”

Chasing Fire is one of two Olly Murphy contenders in the Supreme
Chasing Fire is one of two Olly Murphy contenders in the Supreme

Olly Murphy saddles two unbeaten hurdlers in Chasing Fire and Strong Leader. The former has won all three races this term by a combined total of 38 lengths, while the latter is similarly three-from-three this term.

Murphy said: “Chasing Fire is in good form and has had a very smooth preparation, so fingers crossed he gets a clear run round and he’ll have an each-way chance.

“The other lad is not to be discounted either. He has had a very good preparation and has been very good to date. If he gets into a rhythm, he could well out-run his price as well.”

The Joseph O’Brien-trained High Definition, who went down a neck in the Group One Tattersalls Gold Cup on the Flat in May when handled by Aidan O’Brien, has had just two runs over hurdles.

The classy performer landed his maiden with ease at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, before unshipping JJ Slevin in the Grade One won by Il Etait Temps at the same track.

O’Brien holds the five-year-old in high esteem and said: “He over-jumped and stood on himself on landing. It was one of those things.

High Definition was a classy Flat performer for Aidan O'Brien
High Definition was a classy Flat performer for Aidan O'Brien

“You’d love to have a little more experience going into Cheltenham, but it is what it is. It looks a very good race and an open race, and we hope he can be in the mix – he’s certainly a very talented horse.”

Tahmuras, who landed the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January, is the best of the British challengers, according to the betting.

Champion trainer Paul Nicholls feels the easy ground will help his chance.

Tahmuras was an impressive winner of the Tolworth Hurdle
Tahmuras was an impressive winner of the Tolworth Hurdle

“Soft ground will be in his favour because he stays well and won a point to point in Ireland on his debut,” Nicholls told his Betfair blog. “He has plenty of ability, schooled nicely on Thursday morning and probably wants two and a half miles already.

“The faster they go, the better he will run. I see him in the mould of Noland and Al Ferof, two strong stayers who won this race for us. He is in top shape.”

2.10 Jonbon seeks to emulate his big brother

2.10 Sporting Life Arkle Trophy (Grade 1) 1m 7f 199y

Jonbon gets the chance to emulate his brother Douvan and land the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy when he takes on El Fabiolo in a powerhouse clash on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.

The duo fought out a thriller over hurdles at Aintree last year, where Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old prevailed by a neck to gain compensation for his annihilation at the hands of Constitution Hill in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle a few weeks prior.

That Prestbury Park reversal remains Jonbon’s sole defeat and he quickly shot to the top of the Arkle betting with an ultra-professional display on chasing debut at Warwick.

A first Grade One over the larger obstacles quickly followed when taking the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in fine fashion before returning to Warwick to add the Kingmaker to his CV last month.

Although far from perfect in that two-runner tune-up mission, Henderson admits he left plenty to work on and believes the guaranteed hot pace of the Arkle will play to his charge’s strengths.

“We’re looking at Warwick as a good wake up call for him, he’ll be sharper for it,” said the Seven Barrows handler. “He had a good blow and while he looked fantastically well, he looked ready to go to the show ring – not the racecourse – and I think he just needed it more than he anticipated it.

“It wasn’t pretty to watch. He did jump very well and eventually he quickened up and he’s done it nicely – as he ought to have done to be fair, as he should have beaten that horse (Calico) comfortably.

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Jonbon during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Jonbon during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn

“They’ll go a good gallop in the Arkle and that should suit him. That’s why I was keen for him to get a lead (at Warwick). He’s up there with my other Arkle winners. I know Constitution Hill beat him quite a long way, but other than that he’s been very good.”

Douvan famously sauntered to a seven-length success over future Gold Cup winner Sizing John in 2016 but the Henderson-trained sibling might not find things so easy as he takes on the might of Closutton.

Willie Mullins’ challenge is headed by impressive Irish Arkle winner El Fabiolo, who although only 9-2 in the betting at Leopardstown was the only runner able to keep up with the breakneck fractions set by Danny Mullins aboard Dysart Dynamo and pulled 10 lengths clear of the opposition at the finish.

He now has a familiar foe to reverse form with, but Mullins feels he has every chance of turning the tables. He said: “El Fabiolo did everything right (at Leopardstown) and his run against Jonbon last year puts him right in the picture, I think.

“It was only his second run for us and Jonbon was in his own backyard, whereas we had to travel over to England, so he goes there with a huge chance.”

Saint Roi ridden by jockey Mark Walsh (left) wins the Brand New Racing Post App Novice Chase at Leopardstown
Saint Roi ridden by jockey Mark Walsh (left) wins the Brand New Racing Post App Novice Chase at Leopardstown

Dysart Dynamo is engaged once again and is sure to be leading the field at speed, while former County Hurdle winner and last year’s Champion Hurdle third Saint Roi is another for the Closutton squad.

The Mullins quartet is complete by Ha D’or, while Gordon Elliott’s Hollow Games and Cian Collins’ likeable mare Effernock Fizz are others making the trip from Ireland.

Sheila Lewis’ course-and-distance winner Straw Fan Jack returns from a 109-day absence to take his chance at Grade One level with Samuel Drinkwater’s Chepstow winner Ballybreeze the likely outsider of nine.

Constitution Hill doing freakish things

3.30 Unibet Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 87y

Constitution Hill is all set for his crowning moment when he lines up in the Unibet Champion Hurdle on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.

Nicky Henderson’s unbeaten six-year-old has had this date with destiny circled on the calendar since leaving a packed house at Prestbury Park staggered with an imperious display in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

His outings this season have only added to anticipation surrounding his return to the Festival and Grade One contests throughout the season have simply been reduced to tasters building up to the big day.

He brushed aside stablemate Epatante to win both the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdle at a canter and Henderson finds it hard to argue with the evidence as racing’s latest superstar prepares to headline the opening day.

“You’d have to say he’s been round the track and broken records, so he’s done most things you’d want to see and he hasn’t done anything wrong,” said Henderson.

“He’s doing freakish things, but he’s only had five runs in his life and you have to remember that it’s very early days in his career. Normally when you’re coming to a Champion Hurdle you’re doing so on the back of between 10-12 races or something, so it’s hard to gauge really apart from the fact he’s done nothing wrong.

“His racing brain is brilliant. You could go three miles with him because you’d just switch him off and put him to sleep and then wait until you get the right moment and press the button. It really is as simple as that.”

See You Then helped put Henderson on the map with a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle victories in the 1980s and no man has won the race as many times as the master of Seven Barrows.

Trainer Nicky Henderson and Constitution Hill during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn
Trainer Nicky Henderson and Constitution Hill during a visit to Nicky Henderson’s stables at Seven Barrows in Lambourn

However, it is easy to envisage that Constitution Hill could prove to be the best two-mile hurdler to have stepped foot in his Upper Lambourn base if providing him with victory number nine at Cheltenham on Tuesday and Henderson would love to reward the gelding’s long-serving owner Michael Buckley.

“It would be fantastic to win the Champion Hurdle for Michael Buckley,” he continued. “He’s been with me an awful long time and we’ve had great times together, both highs and lows. He’s had a lot of good horses actually, but he’s also had some horrible luck on the way with what were going to be good horses that didn’t make it.

“I thought Spirit Son was going to be a world beater and he sadly died from an accident while he was on holiday, so various things have gone right and wrong.

“We’ve had some wonderful times with the likes of Finian’s Rainbow and Brain Power, but this is an extraordinary animal. His greatest asset is his head – not that it’s the prettiest – but his whole mind game is brilliant.”

State Man won the County Hurdle with ease at the meeting 12 months ago and has quickly progressed into a top-level operator.

He returns to the Cheltenham Festival as the Willie Mullins number one and second-favourite following his all-the-way success in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

He has the perfect profile to lay down a serious challenge to the overwhelming race favourite, but Mullins is well aware of the task at hand.

He said: “From everything he’s shown us all the time and the way he’s improving, we think he’s good enough. We’re living the dream at the moment anyway. If you beat Honeysuckle around Leopardstown you’d normally be thinking there’s only one more step to go, but Constitution Hill is there and a few more too.

“Constitution Hill looks the full package. He’s got speed, he can jump and he stays and he’s going to be very tough to beat.”

Vauban ridden by jockey Paul Townend wins the JCB Triumph Hurdle during day four of the Cheltenham Festival in 2022
Vauban ridden by jockey Paul Townend wins the JCB Triumph Hurdle during day four of the Cheltenham Festival in 2022

The master of Closutton is also represented by Vauban who picked up the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival last year and was third behind State Man at Leopardstown last month.

Improvement will be required to see him bridge the five-length gap with his stablemate, while the other Irish challenger in the seven-strong field is Gordon Elliott’s Zanahiyr.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’ I Like To Move It has a fine record on the old course at Cheltenham – winning the Greatwood Hurdle there in the autumn.

He was back to his best when tuning up with a wide-margin victory in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, while the cast is complete by last year’s fifth Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) and Jason The Militant (Phil Kirby).

4.10: Honeysuckle seeks fairytale farewell

4.10 Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle (Grade 1) 2m 3f 200y

There will surely be no more popular winner at this year’s Cheltenham Festival than Honeysuckle if she can go out in a blaze of glory in Tuesday’s Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle.

It is three years since Henry de Bromhead’s superstar mare saw off Benie Des Dieux in a barnstorming renewal of the Grade One contest and she has since returned to the Cotswolds to claim back-to-back victories in the Champion Hurdle.

But after an unbeaten run of 16 races, Honeysuckle suffered her first defeat when only third in her bid for a fourth Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in December – and having since proved no match for State Man in the Irish Champion Hurdle, she goes back against her own sex for what will be her swansong.

Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Monday morning
Honeysuckle at Cheltenham on Monday morning

Peter Molony, racing manager for owner Kenny Alexander, said: “I wish it wasn’t raining quite so much, but we’re looking forward to it.

“She seems very happy to be back at Cheltenham – she loves the place. Henry always has her at her peak at Cheltenham – he’s a master at that – and I have every confidence that he’ll have done the same this year.”

While Honeysuckle clearly holds outstanding claims her task is far from straightforward, with old foe Epatante – winner of the 2020 Champion Hurdle and placed behind Honeysuckle in each of the past two years – and her stablemate and defending champion Marie’s Rock chief among her rivals.

“It’s a phenomenal race. Ruby Walsh said last week he could imagine five or six mares coming round the bend together and so could I,” Molony added.

“It’s as deep a race as there is all week, but hopefully Honeysuckle will be there coming round the home bend and from there may the best mare win and she comes home safely, that’s the main thing.

“It would be a fairytale for her to win at Cheltenham again. She owes us nothing, but we are greedy!”

The two biggest threats to Honeysuckle appear to hail from Nicky Henderson’s yard, with last year’s winner Marie’s Rock joined by top-class stablemate Epatante.

There was a lot of talk that Marie’s Rock could this year step up in trip to take on the boys in the Stayers’ Hurdle later in the week, but connections ultimately decided to let her defend her crown.

Marie’s Rock and Nico de Boinville after winning last year's Mares' Hurdle
Marie’s Rock and Nico de Boinville after winning last year's Mares' Hurdle

Tom Palin, racing manager to owners Middleham Park Racing, said: “You might not get a fair reading of if she truly does see out three miles in soft ground, so that’s why we’ve gone for what some might regard as the safe option, or what some people might call the sensible option.

“She’s a defending champion and there’s been a lot made about whether champions should defend their crowns and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re going back there and I think it looks the race of the meeting.”

Epatante won the Champion Hurdle three years ago and has been placed behind Honeysuckle in each of the past two seasons.

The JP McManus-owned mare was blown away by esteemed stablemate Constitution Hill on a couple of occasions earlier this term, but she enjoyed a confidence-boosting success at Doncaster at the end of January and has been supplemented to renew rivalry with Honeysuckle on the opening day of the Festival.

Henderson told Unibet: “Apart from bumping into a certain Constitution Hill twice this season, she has been pretty much exemplary in everything else and we have always really wanted to run here, rather than the Champion Hurdle, because she has an excellent chance against her own sex and I must admit she has been in fantastic form at home.

“We know she gets the trip well and handles soft, so has plenty in her favour and on ratings there is absolutely nothing between her and Marie’s Rock.”

The Seven Barrows handler has a third string to his bow and a second supplemented runner in impressive Warwick winner Theatre Glory.

He added: “She has been a grand mare for her owners Canter Banter Racing and was very impressive at Warwick last time, which was why the decision was made to supplement for this rather than run in the Coral Cup.

“She has to improve a little and wouldn’t want the ground too soft, but she deserves to take her chance and I really hope she runs a nice race and gives everyone a great day out.”

Gordon Elliott fields Queens Brook
Gordon Elliott fields Queens Brook

Willie Mullins saddles Brandy Love, Echoes In Rain and Shewearsitwell in his bid for a 10th Mares’ Hurdle success, while Gordon Elliott is represented by last year’s runner-up Queens Brook.

“She was very good the last day. If Honeysuckle was in the Champion Hurdle I’d be a bit more confident going for the mares’ race, but she’s never been as well,” said the Cullentra handler.

“Last year she had a terrible preparation and finished second. She’s a good mare and the more ease in the ground, the better chance she’ll have.”

Last season’s Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle winner Love Envoi, trained by Harry Fry, completes the stellar field.

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