What are the best bets for the Cheltenham Festival Championship races?
The Cheltenham Festival is getting ever closer and while it’s too early to start dissecting the handicaps, we can certainly have a reasonable stab at the five Championship races with the following quintet of runners making plenty of appeal at this stage – especially as we have the added insurance of ‘non-runner no bet’.
CHAMPION HURDLE – ANNIE POWER @ 3/1 LADBROKES NRNB
This is not such a crazy bet after the shock withdrawal of the ante post favourite Faugheen on Wednesday and, right on cue, the winning return to action of that horse’s stablemate, who was being lined up for either the World Hurdle or Mares’ Hurdle but could now be supplemented for the big one. She would surely have won the latter race at last year’s festival but for a last flight fall and, having shown her well-being in what was no more than an exercise canter against two inferior rivals at Punchestown, it appears she has the Champion in her sights with trainer Willie Mullins saying: “We could get her added. I haven’t spoken to the owner yet but it’s certainly something that could be on the cards.” That she is up to winning it is beyond doubt, especially with question marks over several potential rivals, and I make her a 6/4 chance if she does turn up.
GOLD CUP – DON POLI @ 6/1 BET365 NRNB & BEST ODDS GUARANTEED
The general consensus is that the Willie Mullins-trained seven-year-old is too slow to win a Gold Cup on anything faster than heavy ground, but I’m having none of that. Yes his running style makes him look lazy and laboured at times, with his narrow Lexus win in December the latest case in point, but boy does he know how to win as his career record of 8-12 suggests, with no falls against his name. To me he looks like one of those of horses who do just enough to win and they are the ones who tend to stay at the top the longest. But it’s his Cheltenham Festival record of 2-2 – last season’s RSA and the 2014 Martin Pipe – that is the most compelling reason to back him for chasing’s blue riband as we know previous course form is paramount. And let’s not forget both those wins came on good ground, thus debunking another myth, while I doubt any other horse in the field will be devouring the final Hill as well as him.
CHAMPION CHASE – SIZING GRANITE EACH-WAY @ 33/1 BETFRED NRNB
The question for punters is whether to take on the Willie Mullins-trained Un De Sceaux at odds-on? After all, the form of his Arkle win over God’s Own and Josses Hil is nothing special and nor is the form of his Grade 1 win at Punchestown after that. Granted he did beat the old guard of Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy at Ascot last time and a repeat of that effort may well suffice on the big occasion. However, a couple of falls to his name and the fact the ground at Cheltenham on the second day could potentially be the quickest he’s faced mean he is no betting proposition. But why take him on with Sizing Granite – you may say? Well, he looked a horse on the up when landing a Grade 1 at Aintree last April (God’s Own second) after which his trainer Henry De Bromhead, who knows a thing or two about winning Champion Chases, said he was only now filling his massive frame and would keep improving. That hasn’t materialised in a couple of runs this season but the ground was atrocious on each occasion, and he is going to be so much better on decent spring ground. Well, that’s the theory and bet365’s 33/1 makes the risk worth taking, though some of you may prefer to support him in the same firm’s ‘w/o Un De Sceaux’ market at 16/1 (1/4 odds, 1.2.3).
RYANAIR CHASE – JOSSES HILL @ 14/1 BET365 NRNB & BEST ODDS GUARANTEED
Willie Mullins’ Vautour heads the market for this 2m5f Grade 1 but all the vibes are that he is going to be running in the Gold Cup instead, which is logical when you consider he was only just caught on the line in the King George and will be better suited by Cheltenham in March. He’s not the only horse currently being quoted in the upper echelons of the market who could defect, making a crack at this race more tempting, and the Nicky Henderson-trained eight-year-old makes plenty of appeal at 14/1. He’s a fragile sort who has not made it to the track that often and he’s had some jumping issues too. However, he’s undeniably classy when he puts it all together as he did when beating God’s Own by eight lengths in a graduation chase at Kempton (2m41/2f) earlier this month. That will done his confidence the world of good and what’s more he likes Cheltenham having been placed on both his festival appearances – a second to Vautour in the 2014 Supreme Novice and then an excellent third in last season’s Arkle behind Un De Sceaux. He also has the Champion Chase as an option but NRNB takes care of any worries on that score and, besides, Henderson has gone on record as saying he was more likely to go for the longer trip, with no concerns over his stamina.
WORLD HURDLE – COLE HARDEN @ 8/1 BETVICTOR NRNB
Thistlecrack has proved a revelation since being sent over three miles and has been awesome the last twice, including when winning the the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day. He is very much the one to beat but the vibes coming out of the Warren Greatrex stable have been increasingly positive and last year’s winner is the pick of the current prices. His trainer said after a racecourse gallop at Kempton: “With just four weeks to go we’re starting to step it up. Well look at coming back here or go to Newbury, basically putting the finishing touches on him, getting him much sharper – but he looks a million dollars and I’m very happy with him. He’s a stronger horse this year and although I’m wary of other horses I wouldn’t swap my fella.” The state of the ground is key to him and both his defeats this season have come on very soft going, so we’re banking on some drier weather in the run-up. But ‘good to soft’ would be just fine for him and Prestbury Park does drain very quickly. If it does, he’ll be bang there again and the current 8/1 will look big.