Julian Muscat assesses the form in the four feature races at next week’s Cheltenham Festival.
Tuesday, March 10: Stan James Champion Hurdle
This fascinating contest brings together Jezki, The New One and Hurricane Fly, respectively first, third and fourth last year, yet it pivots around Faugheen. Willie Mullins’s Irish raider is unbeaten in eight starts and is fancied to extend his pristine record. For all that, Faugheen has yet to tackle opponents of this calibre. He is also effective over longer trips, so he’ll almost certainly be ridden aggressively to draw the sting from his rivals. A headlong gallop from flag fall may prove his undoing.
Hurricane Fly, his stablemate and the 2013 champion, finished a below-par fourth last year when fellow Irish trainer Jessica Harrington’s Jezki sprang a mild surprise. The Fly has taken Jezki’s measure on three subsequent jousts, but the 11-year-old’s best days are surely behind him. In contrast, The New One, trained in the county by Nigel Twiston-Davies, is in his pomp. He was most unfortunate 12 months ago when hampered by a faller, yet he still finished within some two lengths of Jezki. He can pick off Faugheen under a patient ride from Sam Twiston-Davies.
Selection: The New One
Worth a punt: Vaniteux
Wednesday, March 11: Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
The burning question is whether Sprinter Sacre can recapture his best form, in which case he will easily waltz to victory. That was the outcome in 2013, since when this majestic specimen has been laid low by a heart irregularity. Nicky Henderson reports the giant bay to have thrived since his comeback in January. He raced zestfully then, before weakening into second place behind champion trainer Paul Nicholls’s Dodging Bullets, but time’s passage blunts the blade of every racehorse. Now nine years old, the former champion looks vulnerable as ante-post favourite. Dodging Bullets has progressed all season, but the fact his form tapered off after Christmas in each of the last three seasons is worrying.
Sire De Grugy, Gary Moore’s reigning champion, has also had time off, but the white-faced chestnut, which represents a real family effort, won with authority at Chepstow recently and, with the big grey Champagne Fever among those expected to set a searching gallop, the race should set up perfectly for him.
Selection: Sire De Grugy
Worth a punt: Hidden Cyclone
Thursday, March 12: Ladbrokes World Hurdle
Few contests replicate the test of stamina posed by this race, which is why it’s thrown up a spate of multiple winners. However, the first two home last year are absent and the third, At Fishers Cross, has been woefully out of form. Although fourth-placed Zarkandar is sure to feature prominently, he looked short of stamina last time. Similar reservations surround Rock On Ruby, the former Champion Hurdler, and Blue Fashion, a lightly raced but injury-prone talent. Briar Hill hasn’t finished off his races over three miles, but has improvement in him. In January, Saphir Du Rheu wore down Reve De Sivola and Un Temps Pour Tout. He represents Paul Nicholls and the Stewart family, whose Big Buck’s made the race his own from 2009 to 2012.
However, the way looks clear for a new talent and Lieutenant Colonel is in that mould. The resolute six-year-old has progressed all season, culminating in a defeat of Ireland’s leading stayers over three miles in December. It would be the fairytale win of the week, with Sandra Hughes having taken over the trainer’s licence from her late, great father, Dessie.
Selection: Lieutenant Colonel
Worth a punt: Whisper
Friday, March 13: Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup
The blue riband threw up a shock last time, when Lord Windermere inched out On His Own and The Giant Bolster, with Silviniaco Conti and 2013 winner Bobs Worth, the fancied pair, back in fourth and fifth. All five return, but only Nicholls’s Silviniaco Conti has won a race in the intervening 12 months. The doubt about him is his uninspiring record at Cheltenham, where the memory of him wilting after jumping the final fence in front last year is hard to erase. However, he is ante-post favourite.
Lord Windermere, trained in Ireland by triple winning jockey Jim Culloty, signalled an imminent return to form last time out, but the time looks ripe for a change of cast. Road To Riches is Ireland’s prime hope, but this free-running sort will find it hard to dominate with Many Clouds and, possibly, Coneygree in opposition. The preference is for Holywell, a horse that thrives at this time of year and which won on both previous visits to Cheltenham. He’s had his hiccups, but local trainer Jonjo O’Neill is a master at preparing one for the Festival. Now eight, and thus in his prime, Holywell is a dour stayer that will relish the likely strong pace.
Worth a punt: Djakadam