Monday 5 February 2018

2018 Cheltenham Festival Preview: The Championship Races

The Cheltenham Festival will soon be upon us so here is our in-depth preview of the five championship races that take place around Prestbury Park from Tuesday 13 March to Friday 16 March 2018.

Champion Hurdle

Last year’s winner Buveur D’Air is likely to start a very strong favourite to retain his crown after 2015 victor Faugheen was turned over in the Irish Champion Hurdle by Supasundae when sent off odds-on. While that was a superb piece of race placing by Jessica Harrington to plunder a big prize at Leopardstown’s inaugural Dublin Racing Festival, the Willie Mullins trained brigade have disappointed somewhat at the top of the 2m division this season.

Joining Faugheen in flattering to deceive is Melon, who was second in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and third in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last year when fancied on both occasions. Yorkhill, meanwhile, has flopped over fences and is now pitched into open company this season and could be sent back hurdling here.

Nicky Henderson is already the most successful trainer in Champion Hurdle history with six wins courtesy of four different horses. A repeat of last year’s one-two with My Tent Or Yours chasing Buveur D’Air home cannot be ruled out. The veteran is a three-time race runner-up and took this season’s renewal of the International Hurdle back in December.

Fellow JP McManus owned horse Defi Du Seuil is yet to build on his dominant juvenile campaign, yet the 2017 Triumph Hurdle winner remains open to improvement for trainer Philip Hobbs. Irish raider Mick Jazz, who capitalised when Faugheen was pulled up over Christmas to land a Grade 1 for Gordon Elliott, may take his chance.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Altior is unbeaten in six starts over fences and three career outings at Cheltenham but this other Henderson stable star hasn’t raced yet this season after needing a wind op. That notwithstanding, he remains well-fancied and his trainer could send him to Newbury for a prep run before the Festival.

Old rival Min heads the Irish challenge in the division after landing the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown impressively. That was compensation for trainer Mullins and owner Rich Ricci after losing a Grade 1 over Christmas in the stewards’ room.

Tingle Creek winner Politologue has made great strides for Paul Nicholls this season, also landing Exeter’s Haldon Gold Cup and the Desert Orchid at Kempton either side of that Sandown success. His official rating has risen considerably since the start of the campaign so that illustrates the serious upward curve this horse is on.

Douvan disappointed when injuring himself reaching for fences in the Queen Mother and sent off a red-hot favourite in last year’s renewal. As with Altior and Mullins stablemate Great Field, we haven’t seen Douvan this season as a result. It remains to be seen if he will get the chance to atone.

Former Champion Chase runner-up Un De Sceaux has options come the Festival and put in a breath-taking round of jumping when landing the 2017 Ryanair Chase. He might step back up to that intermediate trip, alongside Colin Tizzard’s dual Shloer Chase victor Fox Norton. He was a narrow second to Special Tiara, who has it all to do if he’s to retain his crown, in this race at the Festival last year.

Ryanair Chase

Un De Sceaux could not have been more impressive when racing wide and keenly to make most of the running in last year’s renewal. Mullins has campaigned him over 2m thus far this term, including a historic third consecutive Clarence House Chase crown, but it’d be no surprise to see him return to this distance.

Owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede have the improving Top Notch targeting this race. Henderson’s charge has Grade 2 wins over the trip and the form of his 1965 Chase victory at Ascot looks strong.

Fox Norton beat Un De Sceaux over 2m at the Punchestown Festival last year and it’ll be fascinating to see them re-oppose at that trip or in this. The Tizzards’ experiment of stepping him up to 3m in the King George VI Chase didn’t work, but there is no doubting his ability over shorter. Popular stablemate Cue Card, the Ryanair winner in 2013, could also go here as his retirement looms.

A number of other Mullins inmates (including Douvan, Min and Yorkhill) could get this assignment, but twice Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam may be best suited by the drop back after struggling over 3m this season.  

Gigginstown House Stud and Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary will send something after the prize money he’s putting up, but course and distance winner Road To Respect looks Gold Cup bound. That leaves Galway Plate winner Balko Des Flos and Disko as possible runners.

Waiting Patiently, trained by the late Malcolm Jefferson, won his first five starts over fences including back-to-back outings in Listed company this season. That record may be put on the line here. Another intriguing British contender could be Frodon, who has two course and distance wins in graded handicaps.

Stayers’ Hurdle

An event that looks more open than it has been in years if the betting on Oddschecker is any indicator sees 2017 Coral Cup victor Supasundae fancied following his shock Irish Champion Hurdle success. While that was over 2m, Harrington’s charge has suffered narrow defeats over two Grade 1 outings at the Stayers trip.

Long Walk Hurdle winner Sam Spinner is a young horse that has made massive progress to land that highest level prize this season for Jed O’Keeffe, meanwhile. Past Albert Bartlett winners Penhill, who we’ve yet to see this campaign, and Unowhatimeanharry command respect on course form.

Cheltenham lover Wholestone cannot be discounted either, while Nigel Twiston-Davies stablemate The New One is likely to step up and tackle the Stayers’. An entry for L’Ami Serge means Munir and Souede could be double-handed, but success for Yanworth in the Dipper means JP McManus may keep Alan King’s charge chasing.

Big runs from Beer Goggles in the Long Distance Hurdle and Lil Rockerfeller in this 12 months ago can certainly be questioned on subsequent form. More is needed from Thomas Campbell, who hasn’t kicked on from handicap successes over course and distance. The Worlds End also needs to improve after underwhelming in three starts this season but has Grade 1 winning form over 3m as a novice.

The possibility of seeing mares take on the boys cannot entirely be ruled out either with La Bague Au Roi for Warren Greatrex and tough Fergal O’Brien charge Colin’s Sister, who was third in the Cleeve Hurdle, among the entries.

Cheltenham Gold Cup

With no further evidence of the quirks that almost saw him throw last season’s RSA Chase away, King George winner Might Bite heads the betting because of question marks over a number of his main rivals. Henderson stablemate Whisper will not be there to push him all the way due to injury.
Only the difficulty of his John Durkan win on reappearance and heavy ground serves as a possible explanation for 2017 Gold Cup hero Sizing John performing well below par in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase. Handler Harrington is getting him ready for the defence of his Cheltenham crown at home but at no stage has this campaign felt like it’s going to plan. It’s the same with stablemate Our Duke, who hasn’t kicked on from well-backed success in last year’s Irish Grand National.

As Thistlecrack misses the Festival again and the ageing Cue Card could go for the Ryanair, Tizzard relies on last year’s third Native River but he hasn’t been out since. That means he’s done nothing wrong though, and using the Denman Chase at Newbury as a Gold Cup prep run once more is likely.

Several prominent Irish raiders are targeting this blue riband Festival event; those may include Total Recall if Mullins doesn’t like the Grand National weight allotted to the Ladbrokes Trophy victor. Djakadam could be tried over 3m 2f again or drop back. Stablemate Killultagh Vic looks an intended runner, provided he is no worse for coming to grief at the last when in a narrow lead during the Irish Gold Cup.

He fits the unexposed at 3m plus over fences category, alongside the McManus owned Coney Island. If he can follow up on a winning reappearance at Ascot, then his under the radar credentials will be enhanced. Surprise Irish Gold Cup victor Edwulf may take his chance from the McManus after a disappointing campaign for Minella Rocco.

Gigginstown have a hand to play too, which likely features Road To Respect – a Cheltenham Festival winner last year who landed the Leopardstown Christmas Chase this season. There’s also Down Royal Champion Chase victor Outlander. Others may also carry the maroon and white silks.

Bristol De Mai could not have been more impressive when landing the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November but the chances of him getting the heavy ground he acts best on come March are slim. Cotswold Chase winner Definitly Red also has a lot to do to be competitive in such elevated company as the centrepiece championship race of the Cheltenham Festival.