Welcome to “The Greatest Show on Turf”
The waiting is almost over. At 1330 on Tuesday afternoon the flag will fall and they’ll be off and running for the first time at “The Greatest Show on Turf”, the 2018 Cheltenham Festival.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the sport has looked forward to the start of this dizzying four-day jumps fixture of top-class championship races and fiendishly difficult handicaps, run over both hurdles and fences, each and every day.
The bookies go to war with each other – offering far bigger odds than on average race days – bidding to attract their share of the estimated £300 million that will be bet on the Cheltenham Festival. Hordes of Irish punters, numbering tens of thousands and swelling the crowd to above 60,000 daily, descend on the picturesque Cotswold village. They’re hell bent on two missions; to beat the Brits on their own soil, and to relieve the bookies of as much as cash as possible by Friday evening.
Is Buveur D’Air Unbeatable?
The centrepiece on Tuesday is the £450,000 Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle (1530). For many punters this week the banker of the meeting goes in this race in the shape of defending champion Buveur D’Air.
Trained by Nicky Henderson, the JP McManus-owned gelding bolted up in last year’s renewal, comfortably beating his veteran stable companion My Tent Or Yours. Last year he won at odds of 5/1, but having not tasted defeat for two years and been lethal in his three wins so far this campaign, Barry Geraghty’s mount is generally on offer at just 4/7 to retain his crown.
The bookies expect Buveur D’Air to win, and he is undoubtedly hard to oppose despite having to tackle ground expected to verge on heavy. Anything can happen in racing, but I think he’ll win, and the prospect of realizing more than 50% profit to stakes in just over four minutes is tempting to many punters who have saved up for this mid-March betting extravaganza.
But many other punters will be looking for something at a bigger price to back each-way (to finish in the first three). Ireland’s former champion hurdler Faugheen (available at up to 6/1) has been a great horse, but hasn’t been at his best in two starts this season. He runs in first-time cheekpieces on Tuesday, but it’s hard to see him regaining his crown even though his trainer, Irish legend Willie Mullins, is in terrific form at the moment and had five winners at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Old man My Tent Or Yours, now an 11-year-old and runner-up in three of the last four champion hurdles, showed he was no back number when winning his only start this season.
“He’s getting older but he’s also won a big race at Cheltenham this season, so is clearly evergreen,” jockey Aidan Coleman enthused last week. Despite ground softer than ideal, I believe 14/1 represents good each-way value. He’s been there and done it before, he can exploit any unexpected flaws in Buveur D’Air, and I can see him giving supporters a very good run for their money.
Kalashnikov Taking Aim at Getabird
The Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle (1330), the first race of the fixture, sees a classic head-to-head between high-class British and Irish horses in a fascinating battle. Ireland’s unbeaten Willie Mullins-trained Getabird, the mount of Cheltenham Festival riding legend Ruby Walsh, takes on the upwardly mobile Kalashnikov, from the small Newmarket yard of Amy Murphy.
It‘s hard to know how good Getabird (13/8) really is as he has run just twice over hurdles, winning in great style, having previously won two bumpers (National Hunt Flat races). Mullins rates the six-year-old highly and he seems sure to go close with Festival favourite jockey Ruby Walsh on board.
Amy Murphy, however, is confident Kalashnikov can make a proper race of it. If she is right – and jockey Jack Quinlan agrees with her – there could be more to come from her rising star. He landed the ultra-competitive Betfair Hurdle at Newbury last month in tremendous fashion against far more experienced horses, and 9/2 (with Bet365) seems a fair price about a tough horse with plenty of class, who knows how to dig deep when needed.
Tom George’s Summerville Boy (10/1) beat Kalashnikov in Grade 1 company at Sandown in December.That race was run in bog-like conditions and with testing ground also expected at Cheltenham on Tuesday he is another who will give a good account of himself.
Those looking for a lively outsider could do worse than take a glance at the Margaret Mullins-trained grey Debuchet. He was an excellent runner-up at this meeting 12 months ago in the Champion Bumper then went on to win a listed bumper in Ireland. Fourth on his hurdling debut at Punchestown on Boxing Day, he then wasn’t disgraced when sixth to Samcro at Grade 1 level at Leopardstown last month. We know he goes well at this track and is reportedly still held in high regard. At 66/1 each-way (with Sportingbet), and assuming he can handle conditions, he represents a sporting bet at very big odds.
Footpad Looks a Shoo-In
No novice chaser in Britain or Ireland has impressed me more this season than Willie Mullins’ Footpad and I believe he will win the Grade 1 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase (1410).
Ruby Walsh has outstanding claims on Footpad in the Arkle Trophy
A fine fourth in last season’s Champion Hurdle behind Buveur D’Air, Footpad has looked a natural over fences and barely touched a twig in three scintillating successes in Ireland this season. He holds main market rival Petit Mouchoir (5/2) on their running at Leopardstown last time out, and while the latter finished a place ahead of him in the Champion Hurdle 12 months ago, I think Footpad, ridden by Ruby Walsh, is a better chaser and looks the one to beat. He rates a value bet at 11/8 (with Coral).
Harry Whittington’s classy Saint Calvados (10/3) looks the best of the British team and should go well with the rain having arrived in time to aid his cause.
Advice: WIN – Footpad (11/8 with Coral)
Other Cheltenham Festival Day One Betting Advice
They’re betting 8/1 the field in the cavalry charge that is the 24-runner Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase (1450) and just about all the contenders have some sort of a chance if things go their way. That’s what makes the Cheltenham Festival handicaps such a special betting opportunity.
In what may turn into a slog through the mud. my two against the field are Richard Hobson’s Shantou Flyer (25/1 each with Paddy Power), wearing a first-time visor and a confirmed heavy ground specialist, and October’s course and distance winner Cogry (25/1 each-way with Bet365), ridden by Saturday’s Imperial Cup-winning conditional jockey, Jamie Bargary.
I can’t see Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade (8/13 with Bet365) being beaten in the Grade 1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (1610). She’s been superb this season and looks a Day One Irish banker.
The marathon four-mile National Hunt Chase (1650) is for amateur riders only. There is often a plot in this contest with horses being aimed at this event as much as a year in advance. Gordon Elliott has saddled the winner twice in the last three years and his two runners, Jury Duty (5/1) and Mossback 6/1) heading a wide open market.
This is not a handicap, so just three places count, but at bigger odds Colin Tizzard’s Sizing Tennessee (10/1 each-way with 888sport) is of some interest.
The concluding Close Brother Novices’ Handicap Chase (1730) looks very tricky, but Mick Channon’s Mister Whitaker (16/1 each-way with William Hill) has as good a chance as any.
Written by Paul Alster
Paul Alster has been part of the British and international racing media for more than three decades working as a race commentator, TV/radio presenter, journalist, betting correspondent, SP returner, and form analyst. He’s always sought out overpriced runners in handicap races, a quest that excites him as much now as it did at the start of his career.