Andy Holding has nine selections for the first day at Cheltenham, with a 15/2 NAP
With bookmakers desperate to attract your business and lock in your money for the rest of the meeting, the silly season for concessions hits an all-time high with the traditional curtain raiser seeing some firms offering place terms beyond the norm, so whether this race has been on your radar or not in the build up to the Festival, it becomes a race whereby any sane punter worth his salt just simply has to have a bet.
The other thing to point out is the weather is likely to get worse before it gets better as a band of rain sweeps across the country until the early hours, and that is bound to ensure the ground when the runners arrive down at the start will be pretty testing. With that in mind, it makes sense to play one or maybe two solid performers who have already shown top-class Graded form on soft or heavy ground during the season and one of the first names that rolls off the tongue is FIDDLERONTHEROOF (best price 7-1).
Narrowly beaten on his first start over hurdles over 2m3f for new connections by Thyme Hill at Chepstow, the son of Stowaway suffered the same fate when Edwardstone picked his pocket at Wincanton on his next outing. Aggressively ridden when making all to record an easy win at Sandown next time, Colin Tizzard’s gelding was raised in class to see whether he had the sort of qualities required for Grade 1 level in the Tolworth Hurdle over the same C&D a month later, and he answered that question in the affirmative with a display of raw power and speed. Quickening really smartly in the heavy ground, the seven-year-old readily pulled clear of smart field to score in the manner of a top-class novice and with the speed figure pointing towards him being one the best two-milers around, he thoroughly deserves a crack at championship level. Likely to be ridden close to the speed – tactics which have been seen to good effect in this race over the years – it’s hard to see Fiddlerontheroof not being involved if he runs anywhere near to the standard he’s shown this season.
While most Irish punters seem to be going crazy for Asterion Forlonge ABACABABRAS (best price 6-1) has almost become the forgotten horse in many respects but let’s not forget he’s a proven Grade 1 winner with the added bonus of Cheltenham Festival form under his belt, so it would be dangerous to dismiss him completely. Only beaten once over hurdles in four starts, that defeat came at the hands of stable mate Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse back in November, but as that race is easily the best piece of two-mile Irish form going into today’s contest, his solid claims are there for all to see. A ready winner of the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown when last seen, Gordon Elliot’s inmate is one of few in the line-up with genuine turn of foot and providing the ground is suitable enough for him not to suffer from wheel spin, he has all the attributes of many previous winners of this event.
Every pace-map worth its salt will point towards this two-mile championship event being run at a frenetic pace, so it may be worth looking towards something unlikely to be involved in the early skirmishes and BREWIN’UPASTORM (best price 13-2) looks one of the most likely to fall into that particular category.
Although he’s only had just the two start over fences, Olly Murphy’s gelding has shown a really solid aptitude for his new discipline and the way he scored at Carlisle on his chase debut strongly indicated a bright future ahead. Off the back of a very strong pace, the son of Milan came from a long way off the speed to gamely get up in the dying strides and with the form of the race working out as well as any novice chase all season (Good Boy Bobby, Global Citizen and Midnight Shadow all winning since), connections must have been delighted with that opening return considering he wasn’t fully wound up. Odds-on to beat the useful Southfield Stone when last seen at Taunton back November, the seven-year-old once again clocked an extremely useful speed figure considering there was only a small field, and although he hasn’t been seen out since, the numbers he’s posted and technique he’s shown suggest he should be fine without any more practice. Fourth in last season’s Ballymore when probably not quite seeing out the trip on the ground, at least he does have strong form beyond two miles, and with his handler catapulting himself into the big league with his first Grade 1 success of his career with Itchy feet recently, it wouldn’t come as the biggest shock in the world if this lad were to make it two.
It goes without saying that previous course form is almost worth double when it comes to races of this nature and one of the main players that fits all the criteria is THE CONDITIONAL (NAP) (best price 15-2).
Useful for previous connections in Ireland, the son of Kalanisi has improved immeasurably since switching to his UK base and after shaping with plenty of promise at Worcester back in September, he made a big leap forward to claim a viciously-competitive handicap chase over today’s C&D a month later. In terrible conditions, David Bridgwater’s inmate stayed on extremely well to beat plenty of Cheltenham regulars and with the ground likely to be something similar for the first day of the meeting, he should be one of few to relish the examination paper. A gallant runner-up in the Ladbroke Chase followed by another sound performance in the Classic Chase at Warwick, where he probably just didn’t see out the 3m5f trip, it’s hard to see the eight-year-old not going close with a clear round.
Everyone keeps saying that this is the worst Champion Hurdle they’ve ever seen and while there might be some substance to that theory, connections of the winner won’t give two hoots and it will be there on the role of honour board for all time. Now we know the conditions – likely to be soft – there are a few worth considering at biggish prices and having put up Pentland Hills on this column last year, it makes sense to cover all bases with a couple just in case the main selection blows out – especially with most firms going four places.
The first to make some sort of appeal is fellow five-year-old COUER SUBLIME (best price 16-1), who chased home Pentland Hills in the Triumph Hurdle last year. Impressive on his season reappearance at Down Royal, Gordon Elliot’s gelding was strongly fancied to go close in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown next time and for majority of journey he looked likely to justify his market strength. Going as well as anything rounding the home turn, the son of Elusive Pimpernel cut out abruptly to suggest all was not well, so it came as no surprise to see connections resort to a wind-op post-race. Fitted with a tongue-tie for the first-time, hopefully he will see his race out better than he did at the Dublin venue and if so, then he’s likely to outrun his odds.
SILVER STREAK (best price 28-1) has always enjoyed playing the underdog role and he’s fancied to overachieve in this race for the season year in succession. Third twelve months ago, Evan Williams’ grey arrives here having trod a similar path this time around and his efforts in both the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdle are as good as any form lines achieved by some of his rivals chalked up shorter in the betting. Indeed, had he not walked through the third last at Kempton last time he would have finished a good deal closer to Epatante and for that reason alone, there’s no way he should be priced up eight times the price of the favourite.
Benie Des Dieux justifiably looks one of the bankers of the meeting and providing she manages to stay on her feet this year, she looks to have golden opportunity to gain compensation for her tumble at the last. That said, she’s been priced up accordingly so the wiser option is to play in the without the favourite market and stable mate STORMY ISLAND (best price 5-1) makes the most appeal.
Runner-up in this race last year, albeit slightly fortuitously, Willie Mullins’ mare arrives here in excellent heart having landed her last three starts with some aplomb and with the latest of those wins coming courtesy of one her better time figures, she looks primed to run a big race. Just as good ridden in behind as well as making the running, it will be interesting to see what tactics will be employed, but either way, the daughter of Motivator is a thoroughly game and likeable mare that totally belongs on the big stage.
Although this is a handicap in name, there’s only seven pounds from top to bottom, so it’ll probably boil down to who has the stomach for the fight and who jumps with the fewest errors.
One who has already proven that he doesn’t mind these stiff fences is IMPERIAL AURA (best price 11-2) and on balance he thoroughly deserves to be at the head of the market. Not quite seeing out the three-mile trip behind Pym here earlier in the season, Kim Bailey’s inmate was seen to better effect when chasing home Simply The Betts on his return visit on trials day and that effort should set him up nicely for a big run in this similarly competitive environment. Moreover, the overall time figure and final lap sectionals of the front pair that day back in January worked out a good deal better than the older horse handicap won by Cepage over the same C&D and based on those findings, the son of Kalanisi doesn’t look too badly treated off 143.
The other to catch the eye based on all the trends is HOLD THE NOTE (best price 15-2), who represents the same connections who took this race two years ago with Mister Whitaker. Unlucky when brought down going well in a hot novices’ contest at Kempton on Boxing Day, Mick Channon’s inmate went on to press the smart Two For Gold at Warwick when last seen and with the drop back in trip threatening to suit him much better this time around, another bold show looks on the cards.