Harry Allwood looks ahead to this year’s Cheltenham Festival and selects five horses who look sure to go close.
We are still unsure on which races a few of the leading contenders will run in at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, but there is no doubt the Betway Champion Chase is shaping up to be the race of the Festival this year with Altior, Chacun Pour Soi, Defi Du Seuil and Un De Sceaux set to take each other on.
Paisley Park will be many people’s banker of the meeting, including mine, and it is hard to oppose him in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle. Emma Lavelle’s stable star is a must for any Cheltenham Festival multiples this year.
I backed Shishkin ante-post for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after his hugely impressive Newbury victory in January and will be siding with him in the opening race of the Festival, but I do think he is short enough now at 11-4 with a number of exciting youngsters set to take him on.
Here are my five best bets for this year's Cheltenham Festival.
Horse: CASH BACK
Trainer: Willie Mullins. General odds: 7-1.
Cash Back made Notebook pull out all the stops at the Dublin Racing Festival
Cash Back impressed on his first two starts over fences this season and found only Notebook too good at Grade One level last time out at Leopardstown.
Notebook heads the betting for the Arkle, and deservedly so after that victory, but there is every reason to believe Cash Back can reverse the form.
Henry De Bromhead’s seven-year-old was keen to post and there is a chance that the occasion could get to him at Prestbury Park. He was also having his fourth start over fences, whereas Cash Back – who seems to be improving with experience - was only having his third and has less than a length to find with Notebook.
The Arkle looks tailor-made for Willie Mullins’ contender who likes to get on with things and he showed that a stiff, uphill finish does not faze him, despite his keenness, when bolting up at Naas in January.
Mullins has said his eight-year-old reminds him of 2015 Arkle winner Un De Sceaux because he is a horse “who has a great attitude to race” and has “the never say die attitude”.
The serial Irish champion trainer has won four of the past five renewals of the Arkle and Cash Back – whose sole entry is in this race - can provide Mullins with his fifth victory in the Grade One contest.
Of the British challengers, Brewin’upastorm is prominent in the betting but has suffered a setback in his preparation for this race and has not been seen since winning at Taunton in November.
156-rated hurdler Global Citizen was beaten by Olly Murphy’s charge on his chasing debut but that came at a time when Ben Pauling’s horses were not firing and the eight-year-old showed a good attitude to beat Rouge Vif – who has franked the form since - at Kempton in December.
Trainer: Nicky Henderson. General odds: 100-30.
The Unibet Champion Hurdle looks a wide-open contest this year and a case can be made for a number of the contenders. However, I was extremely impressed with Epatante’s victory in the Christmas Hurdle last time out and she looks the one to be on here.
Epatante impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton
It may not have been a vintage renewal of the Christmas Hurdle, but she travelled well, jumped swiftly and put the race to bed in the style of a top-class horse. She also did the same at Newbury on her seasonal debut when she defeated race-fit rivals with plenty to spare, albeit in a lower grade.
The fact she disappointed in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle on her first start at Cheltenham last year is a concern, but Nicky Henderson is adamant she was affected by the flu vaccinations and the Seven Barrows handler thought his mare was one of his best chances at the Festival going into the race 12 months ago.
The six-year-old ought to have plenty more improvement left in her given she has only had eight starts and, apart from the fact she needs to prove she handles Cheltenham, there is lots to like.
Unbeaten mare Honeysuckle also has the option of the Mares’ Hurdle, but she would probably be the main danger if she does run in the Champion Hurdle.
Nicky Henderson discusses his Champion Hurdle contenders
There is every reason to believe we will see an improved performance from last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills now he has had a wind op and the likelihood of a strong pace will suit. However, he has a bit to prove and looks short enough in the betting on what he has shown so far this season.
Supasundae - who Jessica Harrington believes has “a great chance” - makes some appeal at a general 14-1 after an eye-catching run in the Irish Champion Hurdle on his seasonal debut.
The ten-year-old may be vulnerable to an improver and I don’t think he quite has the pace to win a Champion Hurdle but is capable of sneaking a place if conditions are soft or worse which would bring his stamina into play.
Trainer: Dan Skelton. General odds: 5-1.
I was at Warwick the day Allmankind scored by 37 lengths and I don’t think I have seen a more impressive performance from a horse making their debut over hurdles given how hard he pulled throughout the race.
And that performance was no fluke, either, as he scored at Cheltenham next time out – the form of which has worked out well – and also at Chepstow in a Grade One last time where he defeated a useful field.
Allmankind is already a winner at Cheltenham this season
He finds plenty under pressure despite being head strong and jumps well for a horse with little experience.
Although he has made all in his three victories over hurdles, it does not mean he won’t be as good if he gets a lead here with other front runners in the race, including Goshen.
Gary Moore’s exciting juvenile has a similar profile going into the race and is also three from three over hurdles this season, but he has not impressed in the jumping department and will not get away with making mistakes against this level of opposition.
Solo now heads the betting after his impressive victory in the Adonis Hurdle but Allmankind has the strongest form and it will take a good one to beat him in the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Horse: LATEST EXHIBITION
Trainer: Paul Nolan. General odds: 7-1.
Watch how Latest Exhibition scored at Grade One level at the Dublin Racing Festival
Paul Nolan has a high-class performer on his hands again and Latest Exhibition has shaped as though the Albert Bartlett test is certain to suit.
He showed a good attitude to defeat Andy Dufresne in December before scoring at Grade One level at the Dublin Racing Festival over 2m6f. His only defeat this season has come over an inadequate two miles where he was beaten by leading Supreme Novices’ Hurdle contender Abacadabras.
Nolan’s well-bred seven-year-old finds plenty under pressure and an extra two furlongs will help in the Albert Bartlett as it took him a while to get on top after coming under pressure at Leopardstown.
His form looks useful and his jumping is improving plus any cut in the ground will also help. The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle is also an option if the ground is heavy at the Festival, but Nolan has said he is “99 per cent sure” Latest Exhibition will run in the Albert Bartlett.
Horse: AL BOUM PHOTO
Trainer: Willie Mullins. General odds: 4-1.
Watch how Al Boum Photo landed the Cheltenham Gold Cup last year
No horse has recorded back-to-back victories in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup since Best Mate in 2004, but Al Boum Photo has a great chance of changing that stat this year.
Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old had just one run before winning the Cheltenham Festival feature last year and has had an identical preparation this year having landed the same prep race at Tramore on New Year’s Day in fine style, and Acapella Bourgeois has franked the form since.
The fact Al Boum Photo has not had a hard race this season and has been kept fresh for the Gold Cup provides hope that he can win jump racing’s blue riband event again.
There should be more improvement to come as well given his is still relatively lightly-raced and he produced a good time-figure last year.
Although he was defeated by Kemboy in the Punchestown Gold Cup in May, he was probably still feeling the effects of his Cheltenham Gold Cup victory and did not jump as well as he can do.
Delta Work looks the main danger on the form he has shown this season as he defeated Kemboy and Presenting Percy in the Irish Gold Cup in February and is improving.
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