By Andy Stephens
It is not often that mudlarks thrive at the Cheltenham Festival but that looks like being the case this year with more rain forecast to fall on ground that is already heavy in places.
None of us ever want to see horses strung out like washing and unable to handle conditions - least of all the biggest meeting of the year - but that has to be a genuine possibility on Tuesday.
From a punting point of view, at least we know what we are dealing with in advance.
Buveur D’Air and Apple’s Jade are proven in deep ground and will be exceptionally hard to beat in their respective Grade One races, while the rain has also helped Footpad because it means his flawless jumping and ability to stay further will be even bigger weapons in the Arkle.
It was tempting to take him on with Saint Calvados but Harry Whittington’s rising star has never run at Cheltenham and that is a niggle.
Getting away from the obvious, here are four fancies for day one.
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The ground for The Festival in 1995 was soft and Kim Bailey joined an elite group by saddling the winner of the Champion Hurdle (Alderbrook) and Gold Cup (Master Oats).
Bailey might just have a muddy marvel or two up his sleeve this time, too, because his First Flow is a strong stayer who evidently relishes testing conditions.
This is much tougher than any of his previous assignments this season but the manner in which he ran his rivals raged on heavy going in the Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle at Haydock last time suggests he can give Getabird, the hot favourite, plenty to think about.
First Flow will undoubtedly be suited by further down the line but stamina seems certain to be a factor here.
Sky Bet are also refunding losing bets on the first race.
I was sitting in Racing UK’s Ealing offices, sitting next to Tony Calvin, when Coo Star Sivola romped home over 3m under Lizzie Kelly at Exeter 16 days ago.
“That’s in the Ultima, William Hill still going 25-1” said Tony seconds after the finish. “Yeah, I know, but the handicapper’s going to hammer him for that and it’s going to be a much tougher race,” I replied.
Little did I know that Coo Star Sivola would be pushed up only 7lb, that the ground would be similar or that overall the race would lack a bit of quality.
Coo Star Sivola relished the stiffer test of stamina last time and remains unexposed at the trip. Throw in the fact that he has run cracking races in defeat at the past two Festival, ticks all the recent trends and is proven on heavy ground and the novice’s chance is there for all to see.
He’s now no bigger than 6-1 but I can see one-way traffic in the betting ring and him going off 4-1 or even shorter.
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Gordon Elliott has two big players here in Jury Duty, who is equipped with a first-time tongue tie and Mossback. It would be no surprise if they fought out the finish but the general 40-1 on offer about Shades Of Midnight is simply too big to resist.
That would be a big price about the Scottish raider winning on good to soft ground but on deep going it is outrageously big.
He achieved a peak rating of 148 over hurdles - a mark that compares favourably with the best of his rivals here - and has always been at his most effective on heavy ground with stamina at a premium.
His first two runs over fences this term were nothing to shout about but last time, after being switched to the yard of excellent Sandy Thomson, he offered much more when third behind Ballyoptic and Vintage Clouds in the Grade Two Towton Novices’ Chase at Wetherby.
Shades Of Midnight traded at 1.5 in-running but did too much too soon and paid for it near the finish.
This extreme test may well suit - or at least suit him better than others - and he will get plenty of assistance from the saddle.
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Flashback to New Year’s Day in 2017 when it never stopped raining at Cheltenham and the ground for the listed novices’ hurdle over 2m4f was a mixture of soft and heavy.
It’s a race that has really stood up, with Coo Star Sivola the winner (fancied to win the 2.50, see above, off a mark of 142) at the expense of Report To Base, with subsequent Grade One winners Poetic Rhythm and Pingshou behind in third and fourth.
Report To Base, owned by the Ruckers, was always marking time over the smaller obstacles - he’s every inch a chaser on looks - and has taken well to this discipline, impressing with the way he picked off front-running Shear Rock, who went hard, over 2m at Hereford last time with Muffins For Tea (who has since gone close to winning off a mark of 125) almost 40 lengths third.
A mark of 139 may well underestimate Report To Base and, in addition, he is now unleashed beyond 2m for the first time over fences on ground he thrives on.
The Evan Williams stable has been a bit quiet but, equally, has had very few fancied runners of late. At 20-1, he is well worth risking for all that there are plenty in the race who have claims.
How To Bet £20 on the first day of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival:
(Prices correct 8pm on Sunday night)
1.30: First Flow £2.50 each-way at 12-1 with Coral (money back as a free bet if a loser)
2.50: Coo Star Sivola £4 win at 6-1 with Betfair
4.50: Shades Of Midnight £2.50 each-way at a general 40-1
5.30: Report To Base £3 each-way at a general 20-1
50p Each-Way Lucky Fifteen on above quartet plus a £5 win treble on 2.10 Footpad; 3.30 Buveur D’Air and 4.10 Apple’s Jade.
Placepot perm: Sixteen £1 lines
Leg 1: Numbers 3 and 4 (First Flow and Getabird)
Leg 2: Numbers 2 and 5 (Footpad and Saint Calvados)
Leg 3: Numbers 12 and 13 (Coo Star Sivola and Vintage Clouds)
Leg 4: Number 1 (Buveur D’Air)
Leg 5: Number 1 (Apple’s Jade)
Leg 6: Number 5 and 14 (Jury Duty and Shade Of Midnight)
Plus £1 each-way on both Shades Of Midnight (40-1) and Report To Base (20-1)
Select any odd to add a bet