Soft ground looks a certainty for day one of the Cheltenham Festival and if it gets any deeper than that then the bookmakers will be licking their lips in anticipation of punters trying to find mudlarks after what has been a predominately dry winter.
Regardless of what the going is, I’ll be surprised if Apple’s Jade does not deliver in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
She’s always been a smashing mare but this campaign she has taken her form to another level.
The 9-4 available looks perfectly acceptable to me – I’ve already written chapter and verse about the race in a runner-by-runner guide – and there are opportunities to back bigger-priced horses elsewhere on what looks a tricky first day.
Chief among those at chunky prices are Vintage Clouds, who is a general 25-1 for the Ultima Handicap Chase; Momela, chalked up at 33-1 for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle; and Solomn Grundy, who is 25-1 with William Hill for the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase.
Vintage Clouds disappointed in the Welsh National on his latest start but he is usually most dependable and you can forgive any horse a bad run in that Chepstow marathon.
Watch how Vintage Clouds finished third in the Ultima last year
He has since been freshened up and, perhaps significantly, been given a wind op. If he derives any benefit then he must enter calculations because he is only 3lb higher than when a fine third in last year’s renewal.
Momela’s form as a novice last season, including at Cheltenham, stands close inspection and she looked like going close in the Long Distance Hurdle on her return at Newbury in November only to fall two out.
She jumped the hurdle fine but seemed to trip on landing, just as Noel Fehily was bringing her with a meaningful challenge from off the pace.
Her subsequent run at Kempton over Christmas was too bad to be true but you’ve got to forgive horses one bad run and she is a massive price to bounce back with a bang for the in-form Harry Fry. The trainer has said she worked well last week, with her rider struggling to pull her up.
Momela finishes a fine third at Aintree
Benie Des Dieux, the Evens favourite, is the obvious danger as she seeks to repeat her win of last year but , unlike 12 months ago, she’s not had a prep beforehand and that is by accident, not design, because of good ground and then needing to have an unexpected flu jab.
The strong-travelling Solomn Grundy has always looked as if he has a big prize in him and, dropping back in trip, looks to have plenty going for him in the novices’ handicap chase.
He seemed to find 3m4f beyond him at Punchestown last time but his previous two efforts this term put him bang in the picture.
Henry De Bromhead’s charge was fourth in a typically ultra-competitive Paddy Power Chase on his penultimate start after getting well out of his ground and, before that, he had given handicap blot De Name Escapes Me a big scare in another big field at Navan.
Solomn Grundy still has something to learn about jumping but he was accurate enough for Paul Townend at Navan and the combination are reunited for the first time since.
Course form, as always, will play a pivotal part over the coming days and there have been few more impressive winners at the track this term than Fakir D’oudairies on Trials Day in January.
Fakir D’oudairies excelled at Cheltenham in January
He stormed up the hill in a swift time after being a big gamble.
In normal circumstances, the Joseph O’Brien-trained juvenile, owned by J P McManus, would have been bound for the Triumph Hurdle but his connections already have red-hot favourite Sir Erec for that race and so he finds himself pitched in against older opposition in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
The upside, of course, is that his elders have to concede 8lb to him and, if he’s in the same kind of form as last time, that will represent a formidable task.
I make him a solid punt at 13-2 with Ladbrokes and Unibet, and will probably have a back-to-lay bet on front-running Brandon Castle, a smart performer on the Flat who has been zestful in winning all three of his starts over hurdles at Plumpton. He is as big as 66-1.
There looks like being bundles of pace in the Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase and, as a consequence, it may pay to look for something that stays in excess of two miles and is usually ridden with patience.
The one who fits the bill is Hardline, who ran even better than the bare form suggests when third to La Bague Au Roi in the Flogas Chase at Leopardstown last time.
Listen to what Ruby Walsh said after Ballyward's win
Expect Davy Russell to deliver him late once all the front-runners have banged heads against each other.
Finally, Ballyward makes most appeal in the National Hunt Chase. He made the frame in the Albert Bartlett last year, looks all stamina, jumped like a stag when scoring at Naas last time and will have the considerable assistance of Patrick Mullins.
The general 3-1 on offer is probably tight enough in a 4m race in the mud but I would not fancy laying that price against him. Good luck.
How To Bet £20 on day one of the Cheltenham Festival:
1.30: Fakir D’Oudairies £3 win at 13-2 with Ladbrokes and Unibet
2.10: Hardline £1.50 win at a general 6-1
2.50: Vintage Clouds £1.50 each-way at a general 25-1
3.30: Apple’s Jade to beat Laurina – a £2 Exacta
4.10: Momela £1 win and £1.50 each-way at a general 33-1
4.50: Solomn Grundy £1.50 each-way at 25-1 with William Hill
5.30: Ballyward £2.50 win at a general 3-1
Plus a 50p each-way accumulator on all seven.