Latest news ahead of The Festival 2017
FIRST-DAY FESTIVAL MILESTONES
A remarkable Festival record is that of Willie Mullins in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. The race has been run nine times, and Mullins has trained the winner of it for the past eight years – six of them with Quevega (2009-2014). The betting suggests he is likely to extend that sequence – his two representatives, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag, are first and second favourites for tomorrow’s renewal.
Irish handler Gavin Cromwell attempts to saddle his first Cheltenham Festival winner from his initial runner at the Festival, courtesy of the J P McManus-owned Jer’s Girl, who runs in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
Richie McLernon and Tom Scudamore have both won the Ultima Handicap Chase twice and attempt to join Robert Thornton as the joint-most successful jockey in the handicap in the post-war period with three wins. Scudamore, successful aboard An Accordion in 2008, rides last year’s winner Un Temps Pour Tout again in the race, whilst McLernon, who won the contest on Alfie Sherrin in 2012, rides Holywell who he also partnered to glory in this event in 2014.
Neil Mulholland’s The Druids Nephew, David Pipe’s Un Temps Pour Tout and Holywell, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, all have the opportunity to become only the third horse to win the Ultima Handicap Chase twice. Sentina (1957 & 1958) and Scot Lane (1982 & 1983) are the last two horses to have achieved the feat.
Mullins could also become the first trainer to win the Stan James Champion Hurdle in three successive years with three different horses. Footpad (Ruby Walsh) and Wicklow Brave (Paul Townend) bid to follow in the footsteps of their illustrious stablemates Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016).
If Moon Racer, trained by David Pipe, wins the Stan James Champion Hurdle tomorrow (March 14), he will become the first novice to do so since Make A Stand, who took the race for Pipe’s father, Martin, in 1997. The lightly-raced eight-year-old, who has won four of his five starts for Pipe, including the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at The Festival in 2015, is a 9/1 chance with the race sponsors after being unbeaten in two novice hurdles.
Ruby Walsh attempts to become the most successful jockey of all time in the Stan James Champion Hurdle, in which he partners Footpad for Willie Mullins. Walsh boasts four wins in the two-mile championship hurdling showpiece courtesy of Hurricane Fly (2011 & 2013), Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016). Tim Molony also has four victories to his name aboard Hatton’s Grace (1951) and three-time winner Sir Ken (1952, 1953 & 1954).
Nicky Henderson is The Festival’s winning-most trainer, with 55 victories under his belt so far. He has eight runners declared for the first day of this year’s meeting, and his best chance is the unbeaten Altior, odds-on favourite for the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase. Henderson has won the race five times to date, equalling Irish trainer Tom Dreaper’s record in the two-mile novices’ championship. Henderson has also won the Stan James Champion Hurdle on five occasions, joining Peter Easterby as the race’s most successful trainer. The Lambourn handler saddles Buveur D’Air, Brain Power and My Tent Or Yours in this year’s renewal.
Younger trainers looking for their first Festival victory include brothers-in-law Charlie Longsdon and Ben Pauling. Longsdon sends Coologue to contest the Ultima Handicap Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow, while Pauling has High Bridge in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and A Hare Breath in the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase.
J P McManus is much the most successful current owner at The Festival with 49 winners, stretching from Mister Donovan’s 1982 victory in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle to On The Fringe’s 2016 St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase win. He has seven runners on the opening day of The Festival 2017, headed by Stan James Champion Hurdle trio Yanworth, My Tent Or Yours and Buveur D’Air. Among his other runners is Edwulf, around a 9/2 chance in the J T McNamara National Hunt Chase, who may give first-season trainer Joseph O’Brien a first Festival win.
CAN DOUVAN DO IT?
All eyes will be on Douvan (Ruby Walsh) in Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.30pm) as Willie Mullins’ superstar attempts to continue his unbeaten record at The Festival.
Douvan, a French-bred seven-year-old owned by Susannah Ricci, won the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2015 and took the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase in 2016.
He comes to Cheltenham unbeaten over fences in nine outings, and is a 1/4 chance with the race sponsors.
Surprisingly, Mullins is looking for a first victory in the race. His best result was second in last year’s renewal, courtesy of Un De Sceaux.
Nine horses will line up against Douvan, and the Colin Tizzard-trained Fox Norton(Aidan Coleman) is second favourite at 7/1.
Ann and Alan Potts’ seven-year-old is something of a course and distance specialist, having won three times over two miles at Cheltenham in the past year, including the Grade Two Shloer Chase at The Open in November. Fox Norton finished 11 lengths behind Douvan in third place in the Racing Post Arkle Chase at the 2016 Festival when under the care of former trainer Neil Mulholland.
Tizzard also runs Sizing Granite, owned by the Potts and ridden by Tom O’Brien. The pair will be the West Country trainer’s first ever runners in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
God’s Own (Adrian Heskin), a Grade One winner over two miles at last year’s Randox Health Grand National meeting at Aintree and the Punchestown Festival, represents local trainer Tom George. The nine-year-old has not won this season, but will appreciate the better going at Cheltenham.
George also has Sir Valentino (Paddy Brennan), winner of the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter in November, in the race.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Garde Le Victoire comes to the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on the back of success in a handicap at Sandown in January. He also won the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las in October. The 33/1 shot will be ridden by the current champion jockey, Richard Johnson, who was on board Hobbs’ only winner of the race so far – Flagship Uberalles in 2002.
Special Tiara (Noel Fehily) is a standing dish in this championship race and will be running in it for the fourth year in succession. Henry de Bromhead’s 10-year-old finished third in both 2015 and 2016, and won the Grade Two Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton in December. He is currently available at odds of 16/1. De Bromhead won the race in 2011 with Sizing Europe.
Kerry Lee has supplemented Top Gamble for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase. The nine-year-old has not won this season so far, but took a brace of Grade Twos in the spring of 2016. He will be ridden by Davy Russell.
The field is completed by the Nicky Richards-trained Simply Ned (Brian Harding) twice runner-up in the Shloer Chase, and Gary Moore’s Traffic Fluide (Joshua Moore). Moore won the 2014 Queen Mother Champion Chaser with the popular Sire De Grugy.
Neither Paul Nicholls nor Nicky Henderson, who have the best records in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase of any current trainer with five and four wins apiece, are represented in it this time.
RENTON LOOKING FORWARD TO RECORD-BREAKING WEEK
Ian Renton, The Jockey Club’s regional director for Cheltenham and the South West, today announced that Cheltenham is in “fantastic shape” ahead of the first day of The Festival 2017.
He said: “We are really looking forward to the first people coming through the gates tomorrow morning. We are in fantastic shape. The course itself is in great condition and it is lovely to start on what will be good to soft ground. The buildings and temporary facilities are ahead of schedule and were well advanced two or three days ago.”
Although a feast of top-class racing awaits spectators, Renton admits that he is particularly looking forward to Douvan’s challenge in Wednesday’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
“I have always been excited by Douvan,” he said, “and I hope he puts up the performance we are all expecting. He has been the most magnificent horse to watch and probably the one I am most looking forward to seeing this week.”
Cheltenham underwent a £45-million development between 2013 and 2015, and the final part of that, the Princess Royal Stand, welcomed Festival goers for the first time at the 2016 meeting. Improvement of facilities is an ongoing process at the racecourse.
Renton said: “We keep doing small tweaks – we added a clock to the back of the Princess Royal Stand recently, and we’ve done some work to create a new owners’ and trainers’ entrance at the North Entrance.
“Hospitality bookings have been excellent- we will be serving 45,000 meals over the four days, which is a record. And we are looking for similar crowd numbers to last year’s record attendance of 260,579 over the four days.”
A new life-size statue of Sir A P McCoy will be unveiled by the former 20-time champion jockey himself at 10.45am tomorrow (March 14) on the plaza near the North Entrance to the track, next to the statue of three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate.
“It looks magnificent,” said Renton.
Tickets for Gold Cup Day on Friday are fully sold out, as are tickets for the Best Mate enclosure on Thursday.
CLAISSE CONFIRMS GOING
Cheltenham’s clerk of the course Simon Claisse confirmed at 4.11pm on Monday that the going ahead of the first day of The Festival 2017 remains Good to Soft on the hurdle and chase courses, with a GoingStick reading of 6.0 at 3pm.
The cross country course is still Good to Soft, Good in places with a GoingStick reading of 7.2 at 3pm.
“The outlook for the coming week looks glorious – warm and sunny,” he said. “We might have a little rain on Friday, but that is a long way off at the moment.”
KING READIES TEAM FOR THE FESTIVAL
Alan King spoke glowingly about his team of horses ahead of The Festival 2017. Barbury Castle handler King, has saddled 15 winners at the Festival in his career, and he looks to have readied a decent squad for this year’s meeting.
The team is headed by Stan James Champion Hurdle favourite Yanworth. Second to Yorkhill in the Neptune Ivestment Management Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival, the son of Norse Dancer is unbeaten in three starts this term, which included the G1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day. King also runs Sceau Royal in the two-mile championship event, which takes place at 3.30pm tomorrow, Champion Day, Tuesday, March 14.
King has a number of progressive young hurdlers running at The Festival this week including Messire Des Obeaux. Seventh in the Fred Winter at last year’s meeting, the five-year-old son of Saddler Maker has won three of his four starts this season and lines up in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs at 1.30pm on Ladies Day, Wednesday, March 15.
King said: “Messire Des Obeaux is a second season novice and I’m very happy with him. He got beat in his trial at Huntingdon, but it was very much a trial and he was giving 8lb to a very good horse [Keeper Hill] as well. We only just got run out of it that day and he really has come on for that run – that certainly brought him forward.”
Uxizandre, winner of the 2015 Ryanair Chase, was an excellent second to Un De Sceaux in the Clarence House Chase run at Cheltenham in January on his first run since that victory. King is confident of a bold showing from the J P McManus-owned gelding, who bids to become only second horse after Albertas Run (2010 & 2011) to win the G1 Ryanair Chase (2.50pm, St Patrick’s Thursday, March 16) twice.
The trainer remarked: “He exceeded expectations on his last run and the good thing is, we have had seven weeks to get him right since then, so we had a couple of pretty quiet weeks with him and then we built him up again.
“I’m hoping the time he has had after that race will take the bounce factor out of him. Sometimes if these horses run very well and then you bring them back within three or four weeks, they disappoint, but I hope that extra time will be in his favour. You can’t always tell before a race that they are going to bounce. It’s not until you take them to a racecourse that they disappoint you. The bounce is a big worry but hopefully the time off should take that out of the equation.”
Master Blueyes has looked a smart horse over hurdles and followed up a facile victory at Ludlow in February with an impressive 11-length success at Kempton Park in the G2 Adonis Hurdle later that month. He heads for the JCB Triumph Hurdle (1.30pm, Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 17).
King commented: “He didn’t surprise me with the way he won at Kempton. He had been very good at home before Kempton and I would say the only worry with him, looking at the forecast would be the ground as there might be rain coming in on Thursday/Friday – he would be a much better horse on good ground.”
The 10-year-old Smad Place heads for racing’s Blue Riband event, the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup (3.30pm Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 17), having finished sixth in the 2016 renewal of the chasing championship.
King continued: “The old boy is back. We know what we are up against in the Gold Cup. He is too high in the handicap to run in a handicap so we will let him take his chance and actually the rain coming would suit him. We know that there are probably five or six that will be too good for him but we’ll see.”
King also gave a positive mention to unexposed hurdler Winter Escape, who runs in the Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle (2.10pm) on Gold Cup Day. Owned by J P McManus, the son of Robin Des Pres won his first three starts under Rules but was a well-beaten 11th in the Greatwood Hurdle at The Open in November. However, his handler believes better ground will suit the six-year-old gelding, commenting: “He is back in good form. He disappointed in the Greatwood in November and he was pretty sick horse for most of the winter but he has come back in good form now. He is very much a good ground horse though, so if the rain did come, you wouldn’t see him at his best. He does have a huge amount of ability and I think we have nearly got him back to his best but the ground would be a concern at the end of the week.”
BITE TO CHEW UP RSA RIVALS
Nicky Henderson issued a positive bulletin today on Might Bite, current favourite for the G1 RSA Chase (2.10pm) on Ladies Day, Wednesday, March 15.
Henderson has saddled a record 55 winners at the Festival and again looks to have a readied a strong battalion for this year’s meeting which is headed by stable-star Altior, a devastating winner of the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s meeting and who is a warm order to plunder further riches at The Festival in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase (2.10pm, Champion Day, Tuesday March 14, 2.10pm).
Might Bite sprang to attention when falling at the final fence in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day when having the race at his mercy.
Henderson subsequently sent the eight-year-old son of Scorpion to Doncaster in February, where he won by 99 lengths as a confidence booster ahead of The Festival and he believes that has done the horse’s confidence a world of good.
The gelding will bid to enhance Henderson’s creditable record in the RSA Chase, which the trainer has won twice, courtesy of Trabolgan (2005) and subsequent Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth (2012).
Henderson told At The Races: “Cheltenham is such a different ball game but if you saw Might Bite school on Friday morning, he blew away all my worries about him running at Cheltenham because he was so good.
“He was quicker and slicker than I have ever seen him before and I think, to his credit, he has taken the fall and everything that went with it quite well.
“He was pretty sound after that fall but you never know what sort of mental scar that can leave on a horse as it was an x-rated fall.
“He has been in excellent shape and I think in my mind, he is still the one they all have to beat in the race.”