By Raymond Wigge
Never mind the battle between Britain and Ireland for the Prestbury Cup at Cheltenham next week. Who is going to come out on top between the punters and bookmakers?
As ever, the hot favourites will hold the key. But which are the bankers, and which are the blowouts? Here’s a dozen who will be pivotal – three on each day of the meeting.
Unibet Champion Hurdle (3.30). General odds: 3/10
He seems destined to become the shortest-priced winner in the history of Tuesday's showpiece, and nothing he's done so far extends even the faintest of hope for those inclined to question the wisdom of the crowd.
Across the Irish Sea however, without the favourite's flash or fanfare, State Man has progressed past some highly touted contemporaries and brushed aside Honeysuckle to emerge as the new standard-bearer.
Over further – and fences – Willie Mullins's breathtaking specimen may yet take higher rank, but at this stage he may just lack the basic speed to provide any more than a measure of Constitution Hill's greatness.
Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle (4.10). Odds: 11/4
Acts of God or Goshen aside, we should have more idea about why she's back in distaff company at the off than we do now, and with a few pounds in hand over even the best of her rivals, this could be viewed as a straightforward assignment for a two-time Champion Hurdle winner.
But these calmer waters now look shark-infested – several fast-improving mares have come forward to test the matriarch.
Last year's scorer, Marie's Rock, may be better still this time around, Echoes In Rain has always looked to have a big result in her, and neither Love Envoi or Brandy Love would be a shock winner. Now nine and with many battles behind her, Honeysuckle looks vulnerable to younger rivals whatever the figures suggest.
GAILLARD DU MESNIL
Wellchild National Hunt Chase (5.30) Odds: 11/10
Barring a last-minute diversion to the Brown Advisory, the three-time Grade One winner appears to face an easy task in a race arguably lacking the depth required for so grand a stage, and looks the perfect medium to cement an early advantage over the layers.
Perhaps a little overfaced in his previous visits to the Festival, the Closutton seven-year-old has looked in need of this kind of test since he first climbed unsteadily to his feet as a foal, and posted a huge effort in defeat in the Irish Grand National on his only previous attempt at anything similar.
Even on the brightest day at Cheltenham it's hard to keep one's powder dry, but I fancy Galliard Du Mesnil to reward the patient.
IMPAIRE ET PASSE
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (1.30). Odds: 2/1
After the obligatory early night and healthy breakfast, the unbeaten Impaire Et Passe is likely to be next on the menu for the Irish fans and given the manner of his victories and omnipotent connections it's no hardship making a strong case for his chances.
However, stablemate Gaelic Warrior's well-earned mark of 153 sets quite a standard for his fellow five-year-old, and more is made every year of their generation's poor recent record in this heat.
Throw in Ditcheat hope Hermes Allen, whose Challow form stacks up, and Barry Connell's cosy Grade One winner Good Land – both older - and that case doesn't look so cut and dried.
Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (2.10). Odds: 13/8
Next up, Gordon Elliott's unbeaten Gerri Colombe bids for his third straight Grade One and the staying novices' crown, and here's where the battle of the big satchels could begin in earnest.
The current price is sure to be a fond memory by race time, but of the intended opposition none come with the same credentials or glittering promise.
Inexperience at the trip may put some off, but he has looked every inch a stayer despite a minor late wobble up the Sandown hill last time out.
Arguably the most exciting novice on show at the Festival this year, he can take this on his way to the very top of the game.
Glenfarclas Chase (4.10). Odds: 11/10
Sandown have a golf course, Huntingdon favour the water feature, but at Cheltenham the bit in the middle is reserved for those who believe hurdles and fences alone can never reveal the true mettle of man and beast.
Curiosity or not, a winner's a winner, and despite the ambivalence which greeted Delta Work after his victory last year, it was some effort on his first go at the hillocks and cheese wedges.
On the book, he has only stablemate and Bank debutant Galvin to fear, although the sense persists that the latter's presence here is not the fulfilment of any long-term plan.
The favourite has already had the measure when it matters of the doughty Back On The Lash, and back at level weights should turn round the form of their meeting here in January.
Turners Novices' Chase (1.30). Odds: 11/8
Got only as far as the fifth in last year's Supreme, having run through a rail before the start, but has left that blemish behind in compiling a three-race unbeaten start to his chasing career and should continue to progress.
Seventeen fences in just shy of two-and-a-half miles make this a tricky examination, but Gordon Elliott's six-year-old has made only minor errors so far and, while a longer trip seems sure to suit in time, he is no slouch and should have little difficulty adding to his trainer's embarrassment of future riches.
Ryanair Chase (Thu 2.50). Odds: 8/11
Confirmed trainer Nicky Henderson's long-held suspicions and dashed any lingering concerns about his longer-term wellbeing when dotting up in the Ascot Chase last month on his first try at this sort of trip and retains a rating that makes him the one to beat in the highlight on day three.
Jockey Paul Townend reported chief danger Blue Lord to have run flat following his long odds-on defeat in Leopardstown's Dublin Chase but his best still leaves him with plenty to find, and a few others will make the leap from handicap company relying on below-par efforts from the established Graded performers.
Jack De Bromhead Mares' Novices' Hurdle (4.50) Odds: 13/8
From Henderson's musings on his unbeaten five-year-old, serious consideration was given to a tilt at the Supreme and in years gone by that would certainly have been the natural route given the sparkle shown in her still-nascent career.
There's a race for everyone at the Festival these days though, and despite the presence of three Graded scorers among the likely runners, Luccia will start a warm order to add only a second British winner to the roll call in this contest.
Mullins saddled the first home in the first five runnings and again chucks a handful of darts, and the Zoes – Magical and Princess – add further spice to what looks a strong renewal.
Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup (3.30). Odds: 15/8
Both Friday's Grade One novices' have an open look and the County is the County – they are the long run to the third last in our trip round this trap-heavy course. For many the race will end here – they've come for the Guinness, the craic and Willie Mullins's rangy flying machine.
Last year's brilliant winner A Plus Tard rates the main market threat despite a write-off season, Paul Nicholls is bullish about King George hero Bravemansgame passing this different test and other serious dangers lurk – another trip to the pub could beckon for Hewick, or perhaps Ahoy Senor will get it spot-on on the day and leave them all behind.
Galopin Des Champs, in his paces, is better than them all. Stamina will not be an issue. He's bombed round Prestbury Park like it's his back garden before, and one suspects he will be backed off the boards to take his place in the Pantheon.
I can't have him. Even making his own pace in the Turners last year he made errors before the last, and for me it's hard to imagine him not getting one badly wrong in the heat and thrust of a Gold Cup.
St James's Place Festival Hunters' Chase (4.10). Odds: 9/4
First run in 1904, reportedly the last time anyone backed the winner, the Amateur Gold Cup retains all its relevance, if not the entirety of its Corinthian ethos, and for the pick of our twin Islands' hobbyists this is still the day of days.
I'm no expert on Irish Point form, British Point form, or how the two compare, but on the basis that I'd rather have 20 horses I don't know much about running for me than one – and because sidestepping obstacles leads to disqualification – I'd be taking Vaucelet on.
ALLEGORY DE VASSY
Mrs Paddy Power Mares' Chase (4.50). Odds: 13/8
Unless 24-runner handicap hurdles for conditional jockeys are your medium of choice, this recent addition to the card represents the last chance to charge, to put some icing on the cake of a successful week.
However, caution is advised. The Rich Ricci-owned six-year-old has looked potentially special along the route here, but the same applies to market rival Impervious and both Jeremys Flame and Magic Daze are not travelling over without a chance. The potential late addition of the intriguing Galia Des Liteaux only serves to muddy the waters further.
🐴 STATS AND TRENDS FOR ALL 28 RACES
✍ HARRY ALLWOOD'S BEST BETS IN THE HANDICAPS
🐴 A SUPER STATISTIC FOR EVERY RACE
📅 I WAS THERE: EIGHT MEMORABLE FESTIVAL DAYS
✍ DAN OVERALL STUDIES THE 9 HANDICAPS
✍ 11 THINGS WE LEARNT WHEN THE WEIGHTS WERE RELEASED
😲 WINNERS WHO HIT 999-1 IN-RUNNING AND EPIC LOSERS
🐴 BETTING OFFERS AND FREE BETS
✍ CHAMPION HURDLE RUNNER-BY-RUNNER GUIDE
✍ CHAMPION CHASE RUNNER-BY-RUNNER GUIDE
✍ GOLD CUP RUNNER-BY-RUNNER GUIDE
📺 WATCH: GORDON ELLIOTT ON HIS LEADING CONTENDERS
📺 WATCH: WILLIE MULLINS ON HIS LEADING CONTENDERS
📺 WATCH: MARTIN PIPE - RACING GREAT
Select any odd to add a bet