The Cheltenham Festival is now just weeks away and it’s fair to say that it will be one of the weirdest iterations of the meeting that we’ve ever known. Unless there are some major changes in the way the Coronavirus pandemic is being handled, it will be held behind closed doors and no one will get to see the likes of the Queen Mother Champion Chase or the Gold Cup take place in person. That is if it doesn’t get called off due to flooding, like the two previous Cheltenham meetings; Festival Trials Day and the New Year’s Day meeting.
Prestbury Park will be virtually silent for the first race of the Festival, when normally we’d be used to hearing the famed ‘Cheltenham Roar’. Pints of Guinness will go un-drunk and the usual spread of torn up tickets strewn across the ground will be conspicuous in its absence. Just because there will be no spectators at the racecourse to witness the events doesn’t mean that we can’t have a flutter on them, though, and these horses are our picks.
A Plus Tard
The interest around the Gold Cup is just as fervent as ever, with A Plus Tard seen by many as the one to watch out for. Al Boum Photo is still the favourite at the time of writing, primed to match Arkle’s success of three consecutive victories. Obviously the fact that Al Boum Photo is so well-fancied means that the odds that you’ll get for a bet will not be particularly favourable, which is why it’s worth looking further afield.
A Plus Tard has caught the eye thanks to solid form in the build-up to the Festival, not least of all in December when he won the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. He managed to track down Kemboy in the final strides of the race, handing jockey Darragh O’Keeffe his first win on his Grade 1 debut. A Plus Tard was four lengths down on the run-in, only to overhaul Kemboy in dramatic fashion.
It was only the second time that the horse was racing over three miles in his career, but the win saw his odds for the Gold Cup come in from 66/1 to 12/1, suggesting that the bookmakers fancy his chances this time around. Henry de Bromhead said that he was ‘brilliant’ after the race, but also suggested that it hasn’t yet been decided whether A Plus Tard will go for the Gold Cup or the Ryanair Chase. Whichever it is, he’s worth a punt.
If you’re wondering which way to lean then the fact that he wasn’t put forward for the Dublin Racing Festival is certainly suggestive of the idea that he’ll be running in the Gold Cup. He displayed his stamina in chasing down Kemboy, but there’s another two furlongs to add to the run in the Gold Cup, meaning he’ll need all the rest he can get ahead of the blue riband event during Festival week.
A tall and rangy horse, Pic D’Orhy arrived under Paul Nicholls’ care with a big reputation. He didn’t immediately settle, however, and there were fears in some quarters that he wasn’t going to be able to live up to the hype. Disappointing displays at Auteuil, Ascot and Cheltenham itself merely heightened this feeling, only for a brilliant display at Newbury in February of last year to smash those fears into smithereens.
A win in the Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle reassured those that had been following the horse’s career that he did indeed have what it takes. He fell in the Novices’ Chase at Ascot in November, but returned in December and managed to last the course. Sired by Turgeon, who has also been responsible for the likes of Exotic Dancer, it will be interesting to see whether Nicholls decides to enter him in the Marsh Novices Chase or the Arkle.
Regardless of the event that he’s put in to, it will certainly be worth considering an Each-Way punt on him. It will also be interesting to see if Pic D’Orhy is paired with Harry Cobden again, given the pair enjoyed such success in the Betfair Hurdle. Though the horse is yet to win a steeplechase, he’s only run in four and has a respectable record of four wins in ten hurdle races. Could this be the year he makes his breakout?
Shishkin was amongst a group of horses that really impressed over hurdles at last year’s Festival, with the big question this time around being about whether or not he’ll make the move to fences. His name was entered into the hat for the Arkle and the bookmakers immediately offered tight odds on him of 5/6. That’s not overly surprising, given that his record over fences so far has him at three from three.
He won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for Nicky Henderson last time out, so it’s not a surprise that he’s in the running for the Arkle this time around. Whilst there’s not necessarily a huge amount of value betting on him owing to the fact that he’s the outright favourite at the time of writing, he definitely fits into the category of ‘one to watch’ when the Festival rolls around in a few weeks time.
His form is such that bookmakers are actually offering markets on the race without him included, which tells you everything you need to know about what the bookies think. The only course that they suspect might challenge in him the race is Energumene, but there’s not loads of value there either. Consider this one to be more like research for future possible success, noting how he copes with the pressure of the occasion.
When the season began, Gordon Elliott suggested that Envoi Allen’s target would be the Marsh Chase for the Festival. Whilst he’s been entered into the Arkle and the Festival Novices’ Chase, it’s likely that that was been done just to give Elliott some options should he need them. The likelihood is that Envoi Allen will be going for the Marsh Chase, preparing the horse for the long-term aim of a Gold Cup win.
Elliot will now have no say in the success of the undefeated favourite in any case following the controversy around a photograph of him sitting on a dead horse lead to a BHA ban. This means Elliott horses could possibly miss the festival and to prevent any risks Cheveley Park Stud, the horse owner, has transferred their star runner to Herny de Bromhead.
Back to the horse itself, he won the Champion Bumper in his first trip to the Cheltenham Festival, following that up with victory in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle last time out. Since his first race in Point-To-Point events in February of 2018, Envoi Allen has taken part in twelve races and won them all. Little wonder, then, that the bookmakers have him as a firm favourite for the Marsh Novices’ Chase, not believing for a second that his new trainer will point him towards anything else.
The main reason punters will be excited about him for the Festival is the fact that he has been effective on all Going that he’s run on, winning on everything from Heavy through to Good. Given the ever-changeable nature of British weather at the moment, having a horse that will almost certainly be successful no matter what happens in the days leading up the main event is something that really isn’t to be sniffed at.
On to another horse that impressed during last year’s Festival and that many people will be expecting big things from this time around. Monkfish is tall, imposing and seemed to take to hurdles like a duck to water, so it’s no wonder that the decision to switch him to fences came about last year. He won the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle last time out and has already won twice at Leopardstown this season.
Despite the fact that he’s yet to go wrong over fences, there’s still a bit more value to be found in betting on him than the likes of Envoi Allen or Shishkin, which made him a shoe-in for this list. He might look a bit gawky when running, but he’s coped with larger obstacles easily enough and showed good stamina at Leopardstown to keep ahead of Latest Exhibition in the Neville Hotels Novices’ Chase.
A horse that is all about the stamina, he’s not lost when racing at two miles and six furlongs or more in four times of asking. Though his name has been thrown into the hat for the National Hunt Chase, it’s almost certain that he’ll be going for the Festival Novices’ Chase and you’d be mad to bet against him. He’s another one that it’s worth watching to get a sense of how he’ll do when he’s eventually entered into the Gold Cup.
There’s an extent to which all of the other recommendations on this list aren’t exactly likely to take anyone by surprise, such is the extent to which they’re easy enough to identify for those in the know. That’s not really the case with Micro Manage, however, who you can get odds of 50/1 on for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. That’s because he missed out on most of the 2019-2020 jump racing season and is only just coming back now.
He came third in the Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown on Boxing Day and might have done better if not for a slight mistake four from home. Having spent his career up until now racing on the flat, he’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Red Rum and Tiger Roll by turning a successive flat racing career into an equally impressive one over jumps. He is still a brilliant prospect, however, and should be looked at.
If you’re briefly wondering whether to move on from a 50/1 rated horse that is predominantly used to flat racing and only managed to come third in his one race over jumps, here’s two words for you: Willie Mullins. The Irish Champion Trainer is a dab hand at getting the best out of his runners and the Cheltenham Festival is where he truly comes into his own, so don’t be surprised if he does so again here.
The Big Breakaway
When bookmakers look at the odds for horses, there are a whole number of things that they consider. One of them is how well a trainer has done in the past, with Colin Tizzard’s decidedly poor display during the Cheltenham Festival in 2020 meaning that many of his charges are being overlooked this time around. That is very much the case with The Big Breakaway, who looks to be going for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.
As you’ll read elsewhere, Monkfish is as good as nailed on to win the Brown Advisory, but if you wanted to have a nice little outside bet then you could do a lot worse than looking toward The Big Breakaway. Currently available at 12/1, Colin Tizzard would love nothing more than to confirm that his training race is not yet won by getting one over on Willie Mullins, with The Big Breakaway the horse likely to help him do it.
He came fourth in the Ballymore last time out, proving that he’s capable of making it into the places, whilst a win at Cheltenham in the Novices’ Chase in November is evidence that he likes the course. A second-place finish at Exeter at the start of December followed by the same placing at Kempton Park on Boxing Day should have those in the know quietly excited about what he might achieve if he gets his act together.
Dickie Diver is another horse that might run in the Brown Advisory Plate, but it’s far more likely that he’ll be put forward for the National Hunt Challenge Cup. This opening day race has long been a challenge of stamina and previous winners have included the likes of Minella Rocco, Rathvinden and Grand National winner Tiger Roll. Nine of the previous 12 winners have been aged 6, 7 or 8 and he’s bang in that age-range.
It’s also interesting to note that nine of the last 12 winners of the National Hunt Challenge Cup have races at least once before at Cheltenham, with Dickie Diver coming fourth in the Albert Bartlett last year. In his burgeoning career he’s only won three races, but then again he’s only taken part in nine so that’s actually a pretty decent return. His last race was the Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase at Newbury, where he came second.
The other reason to look at Dickie Diver is that Galvin is the runaway favourite with the bookmakers, meaning that there’s some decent value to be found. He belongs to J. P. McManus and is one of Nicky Henderson’s hopes for this Festival, with Henderson not the sort of person who messes around when it comes to chasing down the Champion Trainer Trophy. Derek O’Connor is likely to be riding him, with good experience in this race.
Ok, it’s not exactly a shock to see the name of Paisley Park on a list of horses that might do well during the Cheltenham Festival, but it’s impossible to write a piece about horses to keep an eye on and not include the bay gelding. Emma Lavelle has worked hard to set her up for the Stayers’ Hurdle, which he won two years ago, but he’s probably not in quite the same vein of form as he was back in 2019.
That being said, he did win the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot in December, putting the pretender to his thrown in this race, Thyme Hill, in the shadow as he did so. Paisley Park is known for his powerful finishes, which is why he loves the Cheltenham course so much. This is a course that asks horses to keep a bit in their tank for the final stretch, which plays right into Paisley Park’s chief strengths.
There are a few horses that might well fancy their chances of stopping Lavelle’s horse from re-claiming his Stayers’ Hurdle crown, so it might be worth having an Each-Way punt if you’re at all unsure about how things are likely to work out for him. If you’re after a horse that you’re fairly certain will do well but that doesn’t have the ludicrously tight odds to accompany that thought, Paisley Park is a good place to start.
Micro Manage is our outside tip for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but if you want to look towards a horse that has a decent chance of winning it then you won’t want to stray too far past Appreciate It. The 6/4 favourite at the time of writing wasn’t always well-fancied for the race and only came in with the bookies after surprising Willie Mullins with his performance in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown in December.
What comes in can also go out, of course, so if you don’t fancy the odds in the ante-post betting market then you might want to wait to see what happens to them as the day itself gets closer. The six-year-old has a decent record at the Irish racecourse, having won a couple of bumpers there in years gone by. Now Mullins is gearing him up for a push at the Supreme and has improved over hurdles.
That being said, not everything that you look out for has to be good. The race at Leopardstown was over two miles, compared to the two miles and 87 yards of the Supreme, so a horse that puts pressure on Appreciate It with some speed might well get in front. Then it all comes down to whether or not he’s got the stamina to reclaim the top sport, which will make the race a thrilling one to watch no matter what happens.