Racing TV presenter Gary O'Brien looks ahead to the big four days at Cheltenham and reveals his best bets for the week.
The build-up to the Cheltenham festival may not have felt quite so prolonged or intense this year but the annual plethora of preview nights – while admittedly leaving me feeling somewhat punch-drunk – have if nothing else helped to belatedly stir the blood ahead of next week’s extravaganza.
Extraordinarily mild winter weather has meant that many of the leading lights of Irish jump racing have had rather restricted campaigns so far, and as such the seasonal ‘narrative’ that we hear so much about these days hasn’t ever really taken shape.
Willie Mullins, in particular, has been ultra-cautious with many of his horses due to the unusually dry underfoot conditions, and with others on the sidelines and the stable operating at a much lower strike-rate than normal of late, we have the scarcely credible situation of the six-time winner going into the showpiece event as only third favourite in the top trainer betting.
Mullins should never be uderestimated and is sure to make his presence felt, but in truth, it is difficult to argue with the layers, and though far from an original thought Gordon Elliott looks a worthy market leader as he attempts to make it a hat-trick of successes in his division.
The likes of Apple’s Jade – who will surely take the world of beating in Tuesday’s Champion Hurdle now that the ground is set to be bordering on soft –, Delta Work and Tiger Roll all appear to hold outstanding claims for their respective targets, while it will be a surprise if the Meath man doesn’t bag at least another couple of handicaps along the way too.
Last year’s seventeen-winner haul for the visitors was impressive, but just a couple of handlers outside the big two – Henry de Bromhead and mystery man Pat Kelly – managed to get in on the act.
In the shape of Monalee, in particular, and Presenting Percy – that pair will at least be hopeful of grabbing a piece of the action once more, while Noel Meade, Jessica Harrington and Joseph O’Brien are also set to be strongly represented. Looking at the raiding party as a whole there are definite grounds for optimism for other less heralded names to share the limelight too, so there might just be a more egalitarian feel to the distribution of honours this time.
From a betting point of view, Thursday has tended to be the day that makes or breaks my festival in recent years. It was a card that I initially tended to be indifferent about when the meeting was extended in 2005, so much so that I even watched on TV from my B&B in 2011 – the only afternoon I have missed since my first visit as a poor student back in 1996!
But for whatever reason, things are very different now, and I am hoping that my nap Defi Du Seuil will get things off to a flyer by landing the JLT Novices’ Chase.
I absolutely loved him as a juvenile hurdler, and while last year’s second season over the smaller obstacles was a write-off, that can easily be attributed to the generally ultra-reliable Philip Hobbs yard being under a cloud.
He has looked right back on song novice chasing this term, and I thought he beat old rival Lostintranslation with a bit up his sleeve at Sandown last time.
Monalee, who looks rock-solid each-way material in the Ryanair Chase, and Kim Muir contender It’s All Guesswork are other Thursday fancies – and if the latter’s owners are celebrating after the blue riband less than 24 hours later I certainly won’t be complaining.
Have a great week!