The opening day of the Cheltenham Festival saw a mixed return for punters. Wins for Footpad and Buveur D'Air were widely welcomed, but by the same token defeats for strong favourites Apple's Jade and Getabird meant not everyone went home happy.
Day Two may promise more of the same as the drying ground poses a different challenge from usual. Here we look at the best of the action and try to find a couple of winners.
1.30 Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
Michael O’Leary has stated that Samcro "is not the second coming of Jesus Christ." Irish punters are not worried about that, but the very many who have backed him for this race will be bullish that he can justify the hype.
Unbeaten for Gordon Elliott, he has romped home in his three starts over hurdles, though the fact declarations are at a 48-hour stage rather than 24-hour for this Festival may have saved ante post punters, as the testing ground prompted connections to reconsider what race he may run in. Even so, he goes fine on this type of terrain and seems a perfect racehorse, full stop.
The value without Samcro looks not to rest with Willie Mullins’ Next Destination but rather with stablemate Duc Des Genievres, the form of whose Leopardstown second to Samcro at the Dublin Racing Festival got a fist-pump when Paloma Blue, third then, laudably managed one place worse than that in the Supreme.
However, Samcro is considered the most exciting prospect in many a year by his followers, who have pseudo-religious devotion, and they will struggle to face the rest of the day if he is turned over.
Selection: Samcro 8-11, Duc Des Genievres without Samcro 8-1
2.10 RSA Novices’ Chase
Davy Russell had a tough choice here some way from home, with Presenting Percy replacing Monalee as favourite for the RSA Chase after he blitzed some high-class foes in the Galmoy Hurdle on Thyestes day at Gowran.
Admittedly, the preparation for this race has been of an idiosyncratic nature consistent with trainer Pat Kelly, who tends to do no interviews even if he has a Cheltenham winner. A 3m5f handicap chase preceded a graded-hurdle effort against seniors (won both), finally completing his prep by taking on Our Duke, a leading Gold Cup fancy! He has generally passed each test handsomely, and there was no shame in the defeat to Our Duke.
Better ground would probably suit both Presenting Percy and Monalee. Presenting Percy, however, is far from reliant on it. Neither is Monalee, but he will need to settle a little better than he did when second in the Albert Bartlett 12 months ago. Both are excellent jumpers.
The Supreme was run in a time 14 seconds slower than standard yesterday, proof of the testing terrain, which will play to the main assets of Dounikos, a rather unheralded steed who would not be the first of that sort of profile to win this race.
Selection: Presenting Percy 5-2
2.50 Coral Cup
Willie Mullins attacks this with a strong team, yet one wonders if Max Dynamite – the mount of Ruby Walsh – will be seen to his best on the soft to heavy ground. He is pretty versatile, yet his best runs have been in the Melbourne Cup.
I quite like his stablemate Voix Du Reve, but I liked him a lot more before all the rain. Two years ago, had he stayed up off a similar rating, he may well have won the Fred Winter, and he was touched off at Sandown next time. He has not stayed three miles this season, shaping well.
As You Were is no forlorn proposition for Alan Fleming. Though by Azamour, he shapes like a staying type, and his effort at Navan behind Blow By Blow is encouraging. Le Breuil is also an each-way proposition for Ben Pauling, with more improvement possible from Aidan Coleman's mount.
Selection: Voix Du Reve 16-1
3.30 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
What drama we have had in the drumroll here, not to mind what may happen in what should be one of the races of the ages itself. There has been pressing doubt all year about Douvan, who was pretty much ruled out for the season; then he was reported to be doing better, and aimed at this race; before it was reported Sunday he'd likely go to the Ryanair instead, only for him to be declared Monday for this – with Ruby Walsh riding!
Min was declared too, and as punters were taking all of this in, Nicky Henderson revealed a setback for Altior, prompting most to believe he was going to miss out; then Henderson tweeted yesterday that he was ready to run! Bring it on.
Pleased to report that Altior is perfectly sound this morning so it’s all systems go for him in the Champion Chase.— Nicky Henderson (@sevenbarrows) March 13, 2018
My Tent Or Yours is a non runner in the @unibet Champion Hurdle today on veterinary advice.
If Ruby is confident enough that Douvan can beat Min, he can probably beat Altior too. Altior is brilliant, but he was less than that 12 months ago when winning the Arkle, had a breathing issue since and has to defy the statistics, which suggest a horse having his second start at the Festival after a break before his seasonal return simply don't win.
Forget Douvan’s run last year when he was injured and he remains the most exciting chaser in training. Min was behind Altior when they clashed in the Supreme two seasons ago but he is better at this game and moreover he made a terrible mistake that day. He was brilliant at the Dublin Racing Festival last time out.
Selection: Douvan 3-1, Min 4-1
4.10 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase
Cause Of Causes and Tiger Roll, the former in particular, have utterly dominated the discourse with a view to this zany event, during which you could go for a run yourself and collapse on the floor before it completes (depending on your age/fitness) – it takes a long time on the usual quick turf, not to mind this!
Gordon Elliott is surprisingly not too worried about the ground for Cause Of Causes, who is not reliant on spring conditions, but most of his best efforts are not on soft to heavy or anything like it. Tiger Roll looks to have little chance, however.
Cause Of Causes has incredibly won three different races at the Festival. Course form matters plenty, which brings me to another interesting sort. The French seem to have a growing fondness for this race, with more runners in it than the other 27 put together.
Urgent De Gregaine was a 50-1 chance when beating Cantlow, albeit in a handicap, over course and trip last season; he then missed the Festival. He was second in Czech's historic Paradubice in October, and clearly has been aimed at this, so he looks worth an interest too.
Selection: Cause Of Causes 3-1, Urgent De Gregaine 16-1
4.50 Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle
Dan Skelton thinks quite a bit of Nube Negra, who may well be bidding to be the first Spanish-bred horse to win at the Festival? (Answers on a postcard and so on).
Those who consider Apple's Shakira banker material in the Triumph, and I would not be one of them, will be all the more bullish if Nube Negra – brushed aside by the mare two runs ago – does the business. Since that outing, he has cruised to victory at Doncaster, and his course form will stand to him. He is a classy little horse.
Gordon Elliott has not spared Mitchouka, who never seems to disappoint, and if he were to win it would be a major boost for the Irish juveniles. He should travel as well as anything until the last or the second-last, after which the weight may tell.
Les Arceaux comes here a maiden and has to get in as a reserve but he is not a bad type and has a squeak at a huge price.
Selection: Nube Negra 8-1
5.30 Weatherbys Champion Bumper
This race is especially fascinating this year, with Barry Geraghty choosing Rhinestone over Didtheyleaveuoutto, an intriguingly named sort who could be a very smart horse but there are ground doubts about this close relative of Denman, who bolted up on the all-weather on debut and again on Turf since.
Rhinestone may prefer better ground too and seems held on Leopardstown running by Blackbow, yet he is exciting.
Gordon Elliott and I were on a preview panel during the snow. Horsemen are used to Michael O’Leary’s aversion to the Champion Bumper. Gigginstown’s number of bumper runners in Britain is just nine since the operation was formed, and none did better than third.
Elliott was asked more out of courtesy than anything else if he had a view on the bumper and he surprised the audience by saying that Felix Desjy was a certain runner. Felix Desjy is partly forgotten, since his last outing was when scoring at Down Royal on 3 November.
Apparently he is working really well, though he can be a bit "hot" and a hood may do the trick.
Selection: Felix Desjy 7-1