The Cheltenham Festival may provide the highlight of British National Hunt racing season, but a major part of the thrill involved has traditionally been the rivalry between the home team and raiders from across the Irish Sea. The influx of French-bred jumpers to both Britain and Ireland, particularly over the last decade, has meant that the competition is now fierce between all three nations.
National honour is at stake, and that rivalry filters through to the desks of the TDN offices. This week, our correspondents from Britain, Ireland and France–all three passionate jumping fans and small National Hunt breeders–will take each other on in a daily tipping contest. Here are their selections for day one.
Emma Berry – Britain
Tuesday’s action centres on the G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle, in which I can’t see the crown being stolen from last year’s winner Buveur d’Air (Fr), so I’m looking at the supporting races. My heart will force me to have a small each-way bet on one of my favourite horses of all time, the mighty warrior Wicklow Brave (GB), but my head has ruled him out of the three selections here.
There’s nothing to beat the roar from the packed stands as the tapes fly back for the opening race of the Festival, the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and this has traditionally been a lucky race for me. This year, I’m staying close to home and siding with my fellow Newmarket residents Amy Murphy and Jack Quinlan who team up with KALASHNIKOV (IRE) in a bid to bring another Cheltenham trophy home to the headquarters of Flat racing. The 5-year-old may be relatively inexperienced, but he’s virtually flawless and has proved that he can cope with what’s likely to be very testing ground.
I’m a fervent supporter of the recent enhancement of the mares’ National Hunt programme in Britain and Ireland and at the pinnacle of that is the G1 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle. Last year’s winner Apple’s Jade (Fr) is a worthy odds-on favourite but Warren Greatrex’s mare LA BAGUE AU ROI (FR) is very much on the up and could cause an upset.
At a big price and a small weight, I’m taking a chance each-way on COGRY (GB) in the G3 Ultima Handicap Chase. It’s always good to see a British-bred Festival winner, and there are few bigger supporters of National Hunt racing than Cogry’s breeders Robert and Jackie Chugg. He has proven form over course and distance, which is always a major plus at the Festival, and is versatile when it comes to ground.
Daithi Harvey – Ireland
While far from confident that FAUGHEEN (IRE) can rescale the dizzy heights he once achieved, I think the 10-year-old showed enough dash last time out in Leopardstown to suggest that the combination of Ruby Walsh, cheek-pieces and the ‘Cheltenham factor’ might be enough to reinvigorate the former champion and dual Festival winner. He made a triumphant return from a long lay-off when winning the G1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown last November before running a shocker when pulling up at Leopardstown over Christmas. He bounced back to finish second to Supasundae (GB) (Galileo) in the G1 BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle and while that bare form is hardly good enough to win today, I think at around 6/1 he represents reasonable value to bounce back to near his best in the Champion Hurdle.
I’m going to take a chance on a longshot in the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle in JER’S GIRL (IRE), who I think will finish closer than her 16/1 odds suggest. Apart from the hot favourite Apple’s Jade (Fr), Jer’s Girl is the only other Grade 1 winner in the field and, while accepting the fact she has already been beaten on three occasions by the favourite and is unlikely to turn the tables here, I think she is worth an each-way bet. Her trainer Gavin Cromwell reports her in fine form having had a break since a narrow defeat to the reopposing La Bague Au Roi (Fr) at Kempton in November and she has historically shown her best form in the spring. She was beginning to get competitive when falling two from home in the same race last year and with luck in running I think she can be involved at the business end.
BRAIN POWER (IRE) faces a tough task against some exciting novices and his form figures are more alphabetical than numerical, but I will be cheering him on in the G1 Arkle Chase. He was bred by my father out of the only mare he owns, so even to be represented on such an occasion is a massive thrill. It wouldn’t be the greatest shock in the world if he were to win. He was rated on a par with both Footpad (Fr) and Petit Mouchoir (Fr) over hurdles and he is arguably quite unlucky not to have been second on his last two runs in Grade 1 company, having stumbled and unseated his rider at Sandown and taken a novicey fall at Ascot behind Un De Sceaux (Fr). Like his mother, he isn’t the most straightforward individual, but he has the ability to win it if he keeps his mind on the job.
Emmanuel Roussel – France
It is hard to go against Buveur d’Air in the Champion Hurdle, but I am focusing on an each-way chance in ELGIN (GB). He has won at Cheltenham on three occasions, also on soft ground, was quite impressive at Wincanton last time out and, being only a 6-year-old, I sense he could run well in a race that is maybe a bit more open than one would think.
I am also going with PETIT MOUCHOIR (FR) in the G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase. He was third in the Champion Hurdle last year and ran well on his comeback in January, when the in-form Footpad (Fr) beat him by five lengths. It’s a case of who’s the best on the day, but I feel Petit Mouchoir will prevail this time while Footpad could start to struggle a bit from now on.
I’m not sure what happened to DEMI SANG (FR) last time in Ireland, but I think he’s got a cracking chance to avenge himself in the last race today, the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. He’s a talented horse who should be up there with the very best, but he looks well handicapped here and is an interesting one to follow.