We’re now just hours away from the Cheltenham Festival getting underway, with the event likely to be the strangest renewal of it we’ve ever known. The only people in attendance at Prestbury Park will be the trainers, jockeys and those required for the smooth running of the meeting, with some owners likely to also brave it. The impact on sport of the Covid-19 pandemic will have a profound effect for years, with this just being the start.
There’s also other interesting subplots to think about, such as the absence of Gordon Elliott from the meeting after the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board issued him with a 12 month ban, of which six months are suspended. Denise Foster has had Elliott’s 200 horses transferred into her name, meaning she’ll be the one most likely to challenge Willie Mullins for the top trainer title. What other things should we look out for this week?
The Going Is Soft, Good In Places
There are only a couple of outside influences that can have an impact on the Cheltenham Festival, with the Going being the chief one. Heading into the Festival, the Going on all courses was Good to Soft, but that was changed to Soft, Good to Soft in places on the Monday of Festival week. Simon Claisse, the Clerk Of The Course, said that more rainfall came on the Sunday than had been forecast, leading to the change.
At the time of writing, the forecast for the week is for the weather to be mostly dry with the occasional light shower. The temperature is expected to hover at about the 9 to 10 degree Celsius range, so the hope is that there won’t be any dramatic weather that will change things significantly. That being said, Claisse himself said:
“After last night, we must remind ourselves they are only forecasts.”
Still, organisers will be happy enough with soft ground given that the previous two races at Cheltenham, the New Year’s Day meeting and Festival Trials Day, have been cancelled due to waterlogging.
Ground Likely To Stay Soft All Week
It’s entirely fair to say that races during the Cheltenham Festival can be decided by the finest of margins. With that being the case, there are numerous knock-on effects of the Going changing to Soft, Good to Soft in places. Backers of Shishkin, Goshen and Metier will want to bear it in mind, given that all three horses are known to favour conditions that are testing compared to relatively easy to run on.
The other thing to think about when you’re looking at the races at the tail end of the week is the fact that rain over the preceding weekend means that it will take longer for the course to dry out. That means that horses that prefer the Going to be closer to Good will be disappointed if they’re due to run on the Thursday or Friday. Add a little bit more rain into the mix before then and they won’t get the Going that they want.
The reality is that the Going can make a massive difference to a horse’s performance. The wise bettor will wait and see how the horses do on Tuesday before making a call about wagers that they want to place on the races at the end of the week. The ground will almost certainly have a fair bit of give in the coming days, so how will that change your chosen horse’s ability to perform at their peak?
Thinking About The Horses
The amount of money that the top jockeys can earn is proof that they make a difference to a horse, but ultimately it’s akin to a good manager in football: they have an influence, but even the best manager in the world can only do so much with a load of bums in their team. Equally, the very best jockey in the business can only have a slight impact if the horse that they’re riding is not up to the task.
It’s for that reason that the horses understandably take centre-stage when the Cheltenham Festival comes around, with the presence of horses in certain races key to the likelihood of them or other ones winning. Here’s a look at the key stories about the horses that have emerged in the days building up to the Festival getting underway, with the presence or otherwise of them in races being a major factor.
Those That Might Love Soft Ground
The change in Going is likely to play into the hands (or should that be hooves?) of several horses, with Appreciate It close to the top of the list. This will be the first time that the horse has run on ground that isn’t Yielding or slower, so there’s a chance that his chances might well be boosted as a result. He’s three from three over hurdles heading into the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, with his best win coming on Soft ground at Leopardstown.
There’s a similar story for James Du Berlais, who has only ever raced on ground that was either Very Soft or Heavy. It’s likely that the current Cheltenham Going of Soft, Good to Soft in place will give him a boost. He’s one of the dark horses of the Champion Hurdle, so if you were weighing up whether or not to take a punt on him then this news should at least sway you towards an Each-Way wager.
Remastered is one of our Each-Way suggestions for the National Hunt Challenge Cup, with the altering of the Going making us even more convinced that he stands a good chance. The David Pipe-trained horse will hope to go one better than Native River, who also ran for the trainer but finished second in the race in 2016. The eight-year-old’s best runs have come on testing ground, so this is a change in fortune that will suit him.
No Thyme Hill For The Stayers’
This year’s Cheltenham Festival might be lacking crowds, but it more than makes up for that in intrigue. There are a number of races that feature what are likely to be thrilling showdowns, which is why the news that Thyme Hill will miss the Stayers’ Hurdle is such a blow. Many were looking forward to watching him go up against Paisley Park for the third time this season, but Philip Hobbs has revealed he’ll miss the Grade 1 clash.
There’s been a minor injury suffered by the horse that means he’ll be forced to miss the meeting, with Hobbs instead gearing him up for the three-miler at Aintree in a month’s time. Whilst bettors will be disappointed, none will be as gutted as Philip Hobbs and everyone from his yard, given that Thyme Hill was their biggest hope for glory in Festival week. It’s the right thing to do for the horse, but sad news for everyone else.
Goshen, Honeysuckle & Epatante Will All Be In The Champion Hurdle
If Thyme Hill missing the Stayers’ Hurdle is bad news, at least we have some positive news when it comes to the Champion Hurdle. It has been confirmed that all of Honeysuckle, Epatante and Goshen will be riding in the event, meaning that the week will get off to an absolute flyer. All three of them will fancy their chances in the race, so we’re in for a barnstorming opening day.
Goshen, of course, missed out in heart-breaking fashion last year after an error at the final hurdle, whilst Honeysuckle and Epatante are two of the most promising mares that we’ve seen for some time. Meanwhile, Willie Mullins will be hoping that Sharjah can go one step further than the second-place they managed last year. Aspire Tower is one of our Each-Way tips, with Henry de Bromhead hoping he can spring a surprise.
No Hat-Trick For Altior This Year
Altior was considered to be one of the best horses ever when he won his second successive Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2019, but he missed the 2020 renewal when Nicky Henderson withdrew him on the morning of the race. Badsworth Boy is the only other horse to have won the race three times, which he did in the 1980s, so many were hoping that Altior would be able to join him in the record books.
Whilst that might still happen, it won’t be this year. Henderson has confirmed that the 11-year-old will again be missing from the Cheltenham line-up, with the horse having coughed after exercising and raising alarm bells. The trainers scoped him and what showed up made them decide that running him wouldn’t be sensible. It’s gutting for the horse, whose career has been marred by niggling injuries.
No Love Island For Annie Mc
Another horse that won’t be appearing in this year’s Cheltenham Festival is Annie Mc, who was an 8/1 offering for the Mares’ Chase. The horse, which is co-owned by Love Island contestant Chris Hughes, has suffered a ‘slight setback’ and won’t be able to take part in the race, which was added to the Festival line-up for the first time this year. It’s been brought in instead of the Centenary Novices’ Handicap Chase.
The idea behind the addition of the race is that it will allow female horses another chance to shine at Prestbury Park, but Annie Mc won’t be one of the ones doing so this time around. The 2 miles, 4 furlongs and 127 yards of running along with the 17 fences that the horses need to jump is seen as being too much for her after the setback. Jonjo O’Neill, Annie Mc’s trainer, believes that the event has come ‘a week too soon for her’.
Horses That Could Cost The Bookies The Most
As the Cheltenham Festival approaches, bookmakers tend to have a look at where their greatest liabilities are. Because this is based on how many people are betting on given horses with the bookies, it differs from company to company but it certainly presents us with some interesting information that we can bear in mind. The more that some prices come in, the more likely it is that others will go out.
Chacun Pour Soi, Envoi Allen and Monkfish are three horses that a lot of punters are taking trebles on, with some also opting to add Shishkin to their selections. If the four of them come in then there’s a decent chance that it will hurt certain bookmakers. At the time of writing, there are no runaway favourites in either the Gold Cup or the Champion Hurdle, so the liability of the majority of bookies is fine for those two.
Elimay is a horse concerning some betting companies, largely thanks to the fact that they had her priced quite long in the Mares’ Chase on the ante-post betting. She won in the Grade 2 race at Thurles in the middle of January, then looked even more impressive in her final race before the Festival, so she could cause them some problems if she wins the newest race on the meeting’s line-up.
One betting exchange site has taken £235,000 in matched betting on the Arkle, of which 62% was on Shishkin at the time of writing. Meanwhile, 78% of their matched bets for the Marsh was on Envoi Allen, which amounts to £143,000. In the Brown Advisory, meanwhile, there’s a big chunk of money being wagered on Monkish that reiterates the idea of him being one of the ones that could do the bookies real damage.
One thing some bookmakers will be dreading is all five of Appreciate It in the Supreme, Galvin in the National Hunt Chase, Envoi Allen in the Marsh, Bravemansgame in the Ballymore and Goshen in the Champion Hurdle coming home. If they do, it could leave them with a huge financial hole to fill, such is the number of bets and amount of money that has been placed on them.
It always seems against the grain to imagine that the bookies want a long-odds outside to win, but because so many people bet so much money on the short-odds horses, the bookmakers stand to lose much more money if they win. That’s why the likes of a four-way win for Chacun Pour Soi, Shishkin, Envoi Allen and Monkfish has got them worried as we head into Cheltenham week.