Previews of the Festival Championship Races

Feature photo by Kerry Hendry of Love The Image Stephen Smith takes a look at the big races on each day of Cheltenham Festival 2014. We start off with a look at the big race on Tuesday 11 March, which is a hurdle race over 2 miles.

Stan James Champion Hurdle

In what promises to be the race of the Festival, Hurricane Fly seeks to repeat last year’s triumph and win a third Champion Hurdle crown. Willie Mullins promises to have his charge primed for the Tuesday showpiece, but many argue that they stare down the barrel of a who’s-who of new hurdling blood. Favouritism is shared with The New One, the precocious 2013 Neptune winner who aligns genuine two mile speed with a proven ability to power up the Cheltenham hill. Amid a season of setbacks, Nicky Henderson concedes his best chance across the festival may constitute the impressive My Tent or Yours. After defeating The New One this season, the 7/2 currently available is certainly tempting, with last year’s second behind Champagne Fever doing little to diminish this season’s credentials. However preference is for the talented Our Conor, so impressive in securing the 2013 Triumph Hurdle in blistering fashion. Whilst the form of that race hasn’t been covered in glory this term, the progression in his Irish performances shows enough promise to believe a reversal with Hurricane Fly is inevitable. Jezki has done little to convince he’s of the class to line up here and can be dismissed. Depending on conditions, Melodic Rendezvous could arrive on the scene but would require bottomless ground. Selection – Our Conor – 9/2 (Win) Next up is Ladies Day where off the track the brave and beautiful ladies will compete for the title of the ‘Most Stylish Lad’ and a first prize of £5000 of Joules vouchers. On the track the big race is a chase run at a furious pace over 2 miles.

BetVictor Queen Mother Champion Chase

With Sprinter Sacre being rested until next season, Gary Moore’s Sire De Grugy is in pole position to pick up the considerable pieces on offer. Entering the race with a RPR of 174, it would appear that there’s no better two-miler in the country at the moment. Holes in his candidacy become gaping chasms under scrutiny. headlined by a defeat to Kid Cassidy in November, a horse who would surely have too much to find to win here. Ante Post gamblers have a few curveballs to negotiate here. Al Ferof’s disappointing comeback season has saw hints he could arrive here – heavy ground permitting. Connections of 2011 winner Sizing Europe are suddenly enthused by Sprinter Sacre’s withdrawl, but is the ability still there? No. The classiest animal in the race comes in the form of Willie Mullins Arvika Ligeonniere. The 11/2 on offer would be far shorter if his form went left-handed, but he’s oozed style and class too often not to contend here. Selection – Arvika Ligeonniere – 11/2 (Win) On Thursday, it’s the long distance hurdle Championship in which Big Bucks aims to win for an astonishing 5th time.

Ladbrokes World Hurdle

If the Champion Hurdle promises to be the race of the Festival, the showdown between Big Bucks & Willie Mullins champion-elect Annie Power won’t be far behind. After last year’s open renewal won by Solwhit, the 11 year old Big Bucks has it all to do to claim a historic fifth crown. With defeat tasted in his comeback, connections are still bullish on Paul Nicholls ability to get the great horse back to his imperious best. Regardless of the 2/1 being short, he could be 20/1 and opposable. He’s simply not demonstrated his ability and can’t be backed. But is Annie Power the heir apparent? Not for me. She’s beaten Zarkander twice this season, utilising a mares allowance. Those victories weren’t impressive enough to hand her the title, and has she peaked already? Memories of Pont Alexandre loom large and we should look elsewhere for the winner. A positive word is had for Rule The World, so impressive last year but has too much to find in this company. My idea of the winner is the horse described by some as the biggest disappointment of this season – At Fishers Cross. Rebecca Curtis has brought the horse back from a shaky start by beating Big Bucks in the Cleeve Hurdle, and has aimed the horse towards this race all year. The 6/1 is far too short considering his earlier season form, but the bookmakers sense the animal’s class. Selection – At Fishers Cross – 6/1 (Win) On Friday, it’s the week’s showpiece event and climax to the meeting where the best chasers from England and Ireland do battle to take the crown in Jump Racing’s Blue Riband event.

BetFred Cheltenham Gold Cup

Dubbed as the ‘cash machine’ by Cheltenham backers, Nicky Henderson looks to guide Bobs Worth to a second consecutive Gold Cup – and a sixth Cheltenham win on the bounce. Putting a disappointing Betfair Chase behind him, Henderson’s charge returned to form with a resounding Irish Lexus victory, seeing his price tumble into today’s 7/4. An out and out Cheltenham horse, bookmakers dread the consequences of a successful defence. The winner of an Albert Bartlett, RSA Chase and Gold Cup, it’s only the brave who would desert such a reliable animal. Braver still as this year’s renewal lacks the firepower of the last six years. With the withdrawals of Sir De Champs and Cue Card, Dynaste’s preference to go back in trip and Long Run’s capitulation, only Silviniaco Conti lays down a serious challenge. The King George winner dug deep to overhaul Cue Card that day, and while the Nicholls horse has no Cheltenham form, he lacks the obvious flaws that every other rival has. For me, Silviniaco Conti is the likely winner, but at a short 3/1 it’s a gamble which I won’t be making. Value lies elsewhere in a race that’s cutting up badly. Last week’s performance by Captain Chris has given hope that he’s the best he’s ever been. Groans are heard from those who remember his recent left-handed form, but the horse is an Arkle winner and has earned his RPR of 170. His price is being trimmed all the time, and the 14/1 available today is great value to finish on the premises. Selection – Captain Chris – 14/1 (E/W)