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Cheltenham Friday tips – best bets for the season-opener at Prestbury Park

The first Cheltenham meeting of the season is upon us

It's the first Cheltenham meeting of the season and we've run the rule over the seven-race card.

Jumps fans rejoice, the first Cheltenham meeting is upon us this afternoon and here’s my take on each of the seven races.

2.10: Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, 2m5f26yds
There will be few classier horses running over hurdles this season than John Ferguson’s PENGLAI PAVILION (9/4 bet365) and, having recorded facile wins at Hexham and Stratford, he can bring up the hat-trick. He was a Listed winner on the flat when trained in France and had the likes of Al Kazeem and Flintshire behind when finishing fifth in the 2013 Arc won by Treve. Smart form on the level doesn’t always translate to jumps, but he clearly retains plenty of ability and a 96-day absence is no real concern as he’s gone well fresh in the past, while his stable continues in unstoppable form. There are some progressive sorts from across the Irish Sea taking him on – Exxaro may do best of these – but the selection can see them off before going on to better things.

2.45: Novices’ Chase, 1m7f199yds
It will be fascinating to see how Ferguson’s QEWY (11/4 bet365) performs on his chasing debut against three rivals as he was classy enough over hurdles to finish fifth to Douvan in the Supreme Novices’ here in March, despite lacking a jumps pedigree. Presumably he must have schooled well for his trainer to pitch him in at this level and he may well be good enough in receipt of the five-year-old allowance. However, he’s taking on Paul Nicholls’ Dormello Mo, who has already won three times over fences, and Galway Grade 3 winner Rock The World, while you wouldn’t rule out the fourth member of the quarter, Sizing Codelco, though he has much more in his plate then when landing the odds in a Listowel beginners’ chase. Consequently, it’s a contest I’d rather watch than bet on.

3.20: Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle (Series Qualifier), 2m7f208yds
This is far more my cup of tea and I’m keen to take on the fancied Kilfinichen Bay, who has climbed the weights for winning eight of his last nine starts. The seven-year-old has been superbly placed by his trainer Charlie Longsdon and thoroughly deserves a crack at a better contest like this, but I just worry that after his latest nose success at Plumpton the handicapper has finally caught up with him. He’s giving over a stone away to David Pipe’s SAINT JOHN HENRY and that horse looks the one to be on at bet365’s 6/1. A progressive sort last season when he won three of his five starts, falling in the other two, he has the scope for further improvement and his trainer said in a recent Stable Tour that he’d never had him in better form than he is now. With Kieron Edgar claiming 3lb off his back, this is his chance to shine on the biggest stage.

3.55: Ryman Stationery Cheltenham Business Club Novices’ Chase, 3m80yds
A cracking novice chase with six of the seven runners having won last time out, albeit a couple – A Good Skin and Vicente – have longish absences to overcome. That shouldn’t stop the latter from running a big race as he’s best fresh and won his reappearance over hurdles at this corresponding meeting 12 months ago. Representing the powerful Paul Nicholls yard and 2-2 over fences (albeit weak events in the spring) he is entitled to plenty of respect, but I’m going to take him on with the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained BALLYKAN. He too has a 2-2 record and greatly impressed when carrying top weight to victory in a decent novice handicap at Chepstow last month, earning the form comments “jumped soundly” and “kept on stoutly on the flat”. Those attributes will stand him in good stead here and he hails from a stable that targets this meeting and can’t stop having winners. Take Betfair’s 4/1.

4.30: Bet And Watch At Maiden Hurdle, 2m87yds
This is quite tricky as we only have bumper form to go on with most of these. Alyasan has at least had a spin over hurdles, but he finished well beaten and it will be a surprise if this doesn’t go to one of the newcomers. Newsworthy represents the powerful Nicky Henderson-Barry Geraghty combo and he showed he had an engine when landing the odds on his debut at Kempton in February, before never really threatening at the Punchestown Festival. Hurdles could be the making of him given his pedigree, but I’m swayed by the red-hot form of Dan Skelton, who unleashes smart bumper performer MISTER MIYAGI (6/1 William Hill). Formerly trained in Ireland, where he finished second in a Punchestown bumper on good ground, he again showed his appreciation for a decent surface when winning twice at Stratford in March. He’s definitely one to follow in novice hurdles this term and with his stable flying, he’s taken to make a winning start.

5.05: Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase, 3m 1f
If we haven’t landed a winner or two by this stage we’re in trouble as this amateur riders’ contest looks decidedly tricky. Perhaps the best advice is to concentrate on the Neil Mulholland and Nigel Twiston-Davies representatives, PERFECT TIMING and Five Star Wilsham respectively, as those two trainers have won the last four renewals between them. Slight preference is for the former horse at Sky Bet’s 12/1 with crack amateur Sam Waley-Cohen booked, but it’s not a race to go overboard on.

5.40: Harrison James & Hardie Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle, 2m87yds
It’s hard to discount any of the 11 runners in this finale, but one who could prove better handicapped than the rest is the Paul Nicholls-trained OLD GUARD, whose burden is reduced further by Harry Cobden’s 8lb claim. Described by his trainer as “very weak” last season, he did well to achieve what he did considering with the highlights being a juvenile hurdle success at Newbury and ninth place in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Reported to have strengthened up over the summer, he could make his mark in handicap hurdles this season from what is a potentially lenient mark and he did win first time out last season. All of which makes the 8/1 on offer at Betway very appealing.

All odds were correct at time of posting.

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