We are just a couple of weeks away from the start of the biggest meeting in national hunt racing, the Cheltenham Festival. All roads lead to Cheltenham in the sport as ever since the season got underway, trainers, owners and jockeys will have been thinking about the four days of action and plotting how they can record as many winners as possible there.
In this preview, we will look at the four Championship races this season and try to find you some value in those contests.
Champion Hurdle – Day One – Tuesday, 14th March
The betting for the Champion Hurdle has been shaken up a number of times this season as there have been several high profile casualties to some of the leading contenders. 2015 winner Faugheen will not be able to recover in time to make his return to the race, while the 2016 champion Annie Power will miss the rest of the campaign with a leg injury.
Buveur D’Air is the current 11/4 favourite to prevail in the 2m contest but has only had one outing over hurdles this season. He was jumping fences at the back end of 2016 with the view to run in a novice chase at the Festival, however, those plans changed once the Champion Hurdle started to become wide open.
Channel 4 Racing via Twitter
The real value in the Champion Hurdle right now looks to be with The New One. He can be backed generally at 14/1 so if you look on Oddschecker, you may be able to get a free bet if you open a new account ahead of the meeting. Nigel Twiston-Davies’ runner has had real bad luck in this race in previous years but deserves something to go right for him. He is very talented in this division on his day and has the experienced needed in this fast and frenetic contest.
Queen Mother Champion Chase – Day Two – Wednesday, 15th March
It is very difficult to look beyond Douvan in the Queen Mother Champion Chase this year, as last season’s Arkle Trophy winner is as short as 2/7 with the bookmakers for the 2m chase. Such has been Willie Mullins’ chaser’s dominance in this division; many of his rivals have stepped up in trip to avoid the horse at the Festival.
Whenever there is a short odds-on favourite in a race at Cheltenham, there is always some each-way value knocking around. At 25/1 Sire De Grugy looks over-priced and is more than capable of hitting the frame. The 2014 winner of this race is 11-years-old now and has had a mixed campaign so far. He did win a handicap chase at Ascot off top weight back in November and he finished second in the Grade One Tingle Creek Chase behind Un De Sceaux at Sandown. It is hard to see Sire De Grugy finishing ahead of Douvan but he can pick up some place money for his connections.
Stayers’ Hurdle – Day Three – Thursday, 16th March
Unowhatimeanharry has surprised many people this season with the number of victories he has wrapped up in the 3m stayers’ division. Harry Fry’s runner never gets the recognition he deserves as he rarely wins by more than he needs to. The bookmakers are right to make the nine-year old the 5/4 favourite for the feature race on day three of the meeting following wins in the Long Distance Hurdle, Cleeve Hurdle and Long Walk Hurdle, the latter being at Grade One level. There may come a point though where a long hard campaign might just catch up with the horse so he could be worth taking on at the Festival.
At The Races via Twitter
The best alternative to the favourite looks to be with Jezki who will be wearing the same silks as Unowhatimeanharry as they are both owned by J.P McManus. The Irish horse returned after almost two years off the track to prevail at Navan back in January. He then ran a respectable second in the Grade Three Red Mills Trial Hurdle behind Tombstone. With two runs under his belt this season, we could see a fitter and sharper horse at Cheltenham therefore at 10/1 he looks to be the best bet in the race.
Cheltenham Gold Cup – Day Four – Friday, 17th March
This looks to be one of the most wide-open Cheltenham Gold Cups in a long time. Thistlecrack would have gone off close to even money in this race but unfortunately for connections of the King George winner, he will miss the race due to an injury.
The absence of Thistlecrack is a great opportunity for a number of horses to win the most prestigious prize in national hunt racing. Trainer Colin Tizzard still has the top two runners in the betting with Native River and Cue Card and they both have to be respected. The preference though has to go with Empire of Dirt from Ireland. Gordon Elliott’s horse won at the Festival last year and has a very solid campaign so far. His biggest win of the season came at Navan in the Troytown Handicap Chase back in November, while more recently he was second in the Grade One Irish Gold Cup where he finished less than a length behind Sizing John. A repeat of that run would surely see him in the mix at Cheltenham.
Remember that the final declarations for the four Championship races are in 48 hours before they are scheduled to race. Most bookmakers are already offering non-runner no bet though so you can place a bet now and if your horse does not run, you will get your money back. Best of luck and enjoy the action.