Stan James Champion Hurdle, Tuesday (Champion Day), 3.20pm
Form Hurricane Fly (the 2011 winner) was a disappointment last year, but Irish trainer Willie Mullins’s horses have been in incredible form this season, and the horse has jumped well enough this time round to be a worthy favourite. Rock On Ruby was a revelation when he won last year, and the horses of his new trainer, Harry Fry, have been in good form of late. However, a lot will depend on the ground. We’ve had soft going here and in Ireland all winter, and you’ve got to have a horse that will get home in it.
Who will win? I’m a fan of Zarkander, and trainer Paul Nicholls will have him tuned to the minute, so he’s my idea of the winner.
Each-way bet Binocular, the 2010 champion. The fact that his trainer Nicky Henderson never even contemplated entering My Tent or Yours [recent winner of the Betfair Hurdle] leads me to think he reckons one of his other entries, Binocular or Grandouet, has a really good chance.
Sportingbet.com Queen Mother Champion Steeple Chase, Wednesday (Ladies’ Day), 3.20pm
Form The sight of the two-mile chasers around Cheltenham is always one of the spectacles of the Festival and, last year, the battle between Finian’s Rainbow and Sizing Europe made for great viewing. Sizing Europe loves Cheltenham and he’ll set the race up, but he couldn’t beat Finian’s Rainbow last year, and Sprinter Sacre is a better horse than his stablemate.
Who will win? Sprinter Sacre looks a bit special. He’s a wonderful specimen of a horse, about 16.hh, so not massive, but just perfectly put together. If George Stubbs were still alive, he’d be paying to paint him. Each way bet It’s Sprinter Sacre’s race.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle, St Patrick’s Thursday, 3.20pm
Form The absence of four-timewinner Big Buck’s through injury puts a different complexion on this. It was a shame he never faced much competition, but it didn’t detract from his ability-he’d have been fantastic if they’d put him back chasing, and he could have won an Ascot Gold Cup on the Flat. Of the others, Pedlars Cross has lost his confidence and Bog Warrior might go for one of the chases. Oscar Whisky couldn’t beat Reve de Sivola last time, and I don’t think he’s good enough. Neither is Smad Place.
Who will win? The Nick Williams-trained Reve de Sivola has the right attitude, cruising speed and jockey, Richard Johnson, who has the heart of a lion.
Each-way bet Willie Mullins’s Quevega could take the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle for a record fifth consecutive time [on Tuesday] and then run into a place in this.
Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, Friday, 3.20pm
Form It wouldn’t completely surprise if Long Run, ridden by his owner’s son, Sam Waley-Cohen, came back to reclaim the Gold Cup he won in 2011 for Nicky Henderson’s yard (Kauto Star made history by achieving this in 2007 and 2009). For some reason, I believe we’ve haven’t seen the best of him yet. Last year, from the position he was in going to the last, if he were the horse he’d been the previous season, he’d have beaten Synchronised and won his second Gold Cup.
Having said that, Long Run isn’t a great jumper and I suspect that there are better horses than him around at the moment. It would be lovely if Imperial Commander, the winner in 2010, could return to his best. His comeback run, second in the Argento Chase at Cheltenham in January, was a great race. Captain Chris, runner-up to Long Run in the 2012 King George VI, is better right-handed-I’d be amazed if he could win.
Who will win? It will be a big surprise if the novices from last season-Bobs Worth, Silviano Conti and Sir Des Champs don’t prove superior. The Henderson-trained Bobs Worth isn’t very big, but he’s a relentless galloper. He’s just the sort of horse you’d want on your side in a battle, because he’s got courage by the spadeful, so I’ll be sticking with him. Paul Nicholls’ Silviano Conti is a fantastic jumper and if he were to win, it could be a defining moment in the trainers’ championship: Nicky has a lot more ammunition coming into the Festival, but a Gold Cup win for
Paul would be his get-out card.
Each-way bet If the ground came up soft, a win for the Argento victor Cape Tribulation wouldn’t be a total surprise. I’m not sure he’s really that good, but he’s a real trier and has been so skilfully placed by his trainer Malcom Jefferson. John Francome rode 11 Festival winners between 1975 and 1984, including the 1981 Champion Hurdle on Sea Pigeon, the 1981 World Hurdle on Derring Rose and the 1978 Gold Cup on Midnight Court.
The Cheltenham Festival runs from March 12 to 15. Tickets cost from £25 (£30 on the day);
Club Enclosure costs from £70 (£75). Some categories have sold out (0844 579 3003; www.cheltenham.co.uk/festival)
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