With Champion jockey AP McCoy’s last Cheltenham Festival approaching, Lara Hopkins looks over the contenders for the feature races at jump racing’s showpiece event:
Tuesday – STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE CHALLENGE TROPHY (GRADE 1)
The bookies seem sure that the unbeaten Faugheen will write himself into the history books, making him the 11/10 (William Hill) favourite the take the feature race on the first day of the festival. The horse’s stable lad, John Cobb, believes he justifies this price, saying, “I’ve ridden a few horses in my time, but none comes close to him.” With Faugheen having won over 3miles there is no worry about him lasting up the hill, but does he have the turn of foot to take on his closest rivals?
As this favourite has yet to face defending champion Jezki or the highly rated The New One, such a short price seems to be a reflection of the Willie Mullins / Ruby Walsh effect. Therefore both of these, priced at 9/2 and 3/1 respectively, may be a decent outside bet.
Trainer Mullins still has great hopes for his ageing champion Hurricane Fly, winner of 22 Grade Ones, including three this season. However, many believe that this 11 year olds power has waned too much for him to threaten his stable companion.
In my opinion if the ground is soft enough this old warrior may still have a chance, especially since the news coming out of his Irish yard is all positive, reports saying that he is training harder and more positively than when he finished fourth in this race last year.
Tuesday – OLBG MARE’S HURDLE (Grade 1)
With Mullins and Walsh teaming up again it is hard to see past Annie Power in the battle to take over the crown from the legendary Quevega, six time champion of this race. Having finished second to her male rivals in the 2014 World Hurdle, her only loss in her twelve starts, she has proven stamina over the testing Cheltenham track and justifies her odds on price.
However, this will be Annie Power’s first race since May of last year which gives me doubts about her race fitness which could let others sneak into the reckoning, including the other Mullins trained horse Glen’s Melody, the second favourite. Nicky Henderson’s Polly Peachum heads the home team challenge, with L’Unique and Carole’s Spirit also in the mix to challenge.
Wednesday – BETWAY QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE (GRADE 1)
Previously nicknamed the Black Aeroplane for his untouchable dominance, Nicky Henderson trained Sprinter Sacre is now the black question mark that looms over Cheltenham. Can the third highest rated steeplechaser of all time, the greatest since the legendary Arkle, win his first race in 23 months and regain the superiority that an irregular heartbeat stole from him?
Sprinter Sacre heads the betting for his attempt to reclaim his 2013 title from Sire de Grugy although at a much larger price than prior to his injury. It is obvious that the great horse has not returned to the track with his previous dominance, having been beaten at Ascot in the Clarence House Chase in January after a thirteen month absence. This outing should have improved his fitness but doubts remain over his ability to return from such a problem.
Sire de Grugy is no certainty either after a poor performance in the Grade 2 at Newbury in early February, but did look to have improved slightly at Chepstow last time out. He will need to further improve to win back to back Queen Mother Chases
This could open the door for Dodging Bullets who has been much improved this season, beating an under par Sprinter Sacre in January. Some believe he could challenge, but there are many more who doubt that he is suited to Cheltenham, having failed to place here in his three previous starts.
As such, Champagne Fever should be Sprinter Sacre’s most likely challenger if trainer Mullins chooses this race over the Ryanair Chase.
Thursday – LADBROKES WORLD HURDLE (GRADE 1)
This long-distance hurdling championship appears to be the most open of the showpiece events, with no successor to Big Buck’s crown having revealed themselves. If Annie Power were to run in this race instead of the Mare’s hurdle she would be quickly promoted to favourite.
Out of those who are expected to run the Paul Nicholls trained pair of Zarkandar and Saphir Du Rheu lead the market, but Ireland are ready to launch a hard assault on the British duo with a team including five Mullins contenders. However, it is the Sandra Hughes trained Lieutenant Colonel who appears to pose the greatest threat after beating Jetson in December, although this form could prove to be overrated as Jetson has shown himself to be no more than a 145 rated hurdler.
As such, the main challenger to the champion trainer in this very open race could be David Pipe’s 12/1 shot Un Temps Pour Toup who, at 6 years old, is a potential improver and has shown good form over course and distance. At this price he is very tempting.
2014 Long Walk Hurdle winner and Cheltenham runner up in January Reve De Sivola has an outside chance, with reliable looking form with favourite Saphir Du Rheu. Having ridden this horse on the gallops I can honestly say he is a class act and his stamina will last to the end. He’s a horse that deserves a Festival crown but this will only happen if the heavens open and the ground is very soft, which is reflected by his 20/1 price.
Friday – BETFRED CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP CHASE (GRADE 1)
The most important race of the week. The glamorous prize of jump racing. The most prestigious sporting event over fences.
The 2015 Gold Cup is a very open and competitive event. Last year’s surprise champion, Lord Windermere, seems unlikely to claim successive victories as he has failed to score a win from his last three starts. The hot favourite in the betting is Nicholls trained Silviniaco Conti who claimed the King George the VI Chase on Boxing Day, which is usually a good indicator. However, as his main rivals were not Gold Cup standard and this was a less testing course, it is likely he will be found lacking in stamina when racing up the hill on this testing 3m2f track.
Therefore, my pick is Irish hope Djakadam who has been backed from 20/1 to 8/1 and seems to have been specifically aimed at this race by his genius trainer Willie Mullins, racing’s equivalent of Joe Schmidt. Although he’s never won at this level he’s greatly improved since a disappointing Hennessey run and looks to be the main challenger.
Due to the A P McCoy effect it is likely that Carlingford Lough will shorten further in the run up to the big race, with many punters willing the Champion jockey to end his final Cheltenham with a win. However, with only four wins from his seventeen chases to date McCoy’s mount hardly has the profile of a Gold Cup winner.
If the ground turns heavy then Many Clouds would be my favourite, having been unbeaten on testing ground this season, with outsider Houblon Des Beaux likely to run into a place with The Giant Bolster.