14:50 – Ultima Handicap, 3m1f
This is a race that the Irish have typically struggled in. You have to go back 14 years since the Tony Martin trained Dun Doire won this for Ruby Walsh, so it is no surprise to see British trained horses dominate the betting for this year’s renewal with only Paul Nolan’s Discorama featuring for the Irish in the top six in the market. Vinndication heads the market for Kim Bailey and it’s easy to make a case for his chances given his dominant performance at Ascot in November over three miles in soft ground.
This was his first start over three miles and he duly bolted up by five lengths – he has shot up in the handicap as a result and will be carrying top weight here (11-12). Whilst it is not impossible to win this race off top weight (Un Temps Pour Tout did in 2017), it’d take a mammoth effort to do so for a horse that has only run left handed once (at Cheltenham last year) when jumping very poorly. He is also coming off a four month absence and the last 12 winners of the race have all had at least two runs with one of those runs coming in the 120 days preceding the race.
As previously mentioned, Discorama is the leading Irish contender here and is a guaranteed stayer who will relish the soft ground given his run in last year’s National Hunt chase over four miles. He comes here a fresh horse having not run since Boxing Day over hurdles. He looks solid enough and if the ground is bottomless then I can see him challenging for favoritism but I think he might find a couple of these two good.
The Conditional is another confirmed stayer whose connections will be praying for more rain to fall. He looks set to sneak into the race off a low weight and has proved that he can mix it in big field handicaps by finishing 2nd in the Ladbrokes Trophy off 137 back in November. His jumping has let him down on numerous occasions this season and that would be the primary concern with him as you just can’t get away with making mistakes in a race like this at Cheltenham.
My selection for the race finished a nose ahead of Vinndication in last year’s red hot JLT. KILDISART looked like a very progressive novice chaser last season and his season culminated with a brilliant performance off top weight in a competitive handicap on Grand National day at Aintree when he beat Mister Malarky by five lengths. After three disappointing runs this season, which can be attributed to the Pauling yard being shut down for a month and the trainer’s horses not firing, he warmed to the task at Kempton in eye-catching fashion to finish fifth on his last start.
He was generously dropped 1lb for that run and a resulting mark of 150 means he meets Vinndication 9lbs better off than when they met at the Festival last year. Pauling, who already has two Festival winners to his name, has put cheek-pieces on the eight-year-old for the first time which should just sharpen him up somewhat after racing a little lazily at Kempton. Interestingly, six of the last seven winners of this race have worn some form of headgear. Although he does have form on soft ground, he wouldn’t want the ground to be too testing and so any further rain would be a slight concern but he has the class and the profile to win this.
1pt win at
11/1 with MansionBet
15:30 – Champion Hurdle, 2m1f
A lot has been made of what a sub-standard renewal this year’s Champion Hurdle is. You can poke holes in every single horse’s chances here and at the same time make a legitimate case for half a dozen of these.
Epatante has by far and away the best form of any of this year’s runners this season. She travelled, jumped and quickened like a brilliant mare on both her starts at Newbury and then at Kempton and, if it were not for her complete no-show in last year’s Mares’ Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham, she’d be a very solid favourite. Last year, I was fully on the Epatante bandwagon and could not see her getting beat.
As a result I backed her in a double to win the Mares’ Novice and the 2020 Champion Hurdle at
66/1, so it’s safe to say I will be gutted if she does go and win on Tuesday. However, you can not ignore her performance last year – I’m convinced that she is a flat-track horse and the undulations of Cheltenham just don’t play to her strengths.
Pentland Hills has really split opinions this season. An impressive winner in last year’s Triumph on just his second hurdle start, he has been beaten twice when trading very short in-running on both his starts this season. He clearly blew up in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, but the way he threw the race away at Haydock to Ballyandy has to be a concern.
I’m not convinced he stays well enough to be a proper Champion Hurdle contender and that might seem a bizarre thing to say about a horse that won over course and distance last year. The time of last year’s Triumph Hurdle run on Good to Soft ground was slow and visually his turn of foot won the race for him. With the likes of Supasundae, Not So Sleepy and Petit Mouchoir likely to make this a good test of stamina, I think he will struggle to get up the hill.
Next in the betting are a battalion of Irish contenders. Firstly, Cialos Emery who has been wisely supplemented for the race after making the switch back to hurdling after a fall over fences at the Dublin Racing Festival. His task in this race compared to what he would be facing in the Champion Chase is evidently much easier. Fifth in the 2017 Supreme behind Labaik, he has looked like a solid if unspectacular hurdler in the 2 years after that but it’d be a surprise if he ran to the 160+ required to win this. Supasundae has, and will continue to be, a popular each-way shout in this but I just don’t see him as a viable winner.
Meanwhile, Darver Star’s progression has been absolutely remarkable – this time last year he was off a mark of 104 and he goes into this race with an official rating of 158! Gavin Cromwell caused a shock when winning the Champion Hurdle with Espoir D’Allen last year and it would be quite the fairytale if he could win it again with this horse. He was finishing best of all in the Irish Champion Hurdle behind Honeysuckle and has been well supported in the last few weeks down to a price of
12/1. I don’t think there is much value left but he certainly has each-way claims.
There is one horse in the race that has really caught my attention who I think is massively overpriced and that horse is COEUR SUBLIME for Gordon Elliot. 2nd in last year’s Triumph behind Pentland Hills, he was the last horse off the bridle that day but as previously mentioned, they didn’t go much of an early gallop in the race and he was a bit keen as a result.
His performance on his first start of this season at Down Royal on his preferred soft ground was incredibly eye-catching and quotes from connections matched the visual impressions that he had developed over the summer, Elliot said: “He looks a different horse this year, he’s a lot stronger this year and Davy (Russell) says he feels a different horse.” He was subsequently sent off at
100/30 in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle over Christmas where he jumped and travelled like a true Grade 1 open-company horse only to yet again not find off the bridle on ground that was plenty quick enough.
Davy attributed the defeat to his wind and he has since had it operated which could be the making of him. Both Davy and Gordon have been making positive noises about his recent work and I can’t help but be reminded about similar quotes around Labaik in the lead-up to the Supreme a few years ago. He will finally get proper soft ground, has a first time tongue-tie and I think at
14/1, you are bound to get a huge run for your money. He is likely to be held up and, I hope, Davy will be coming there swinging approaching the final hurdle.
2pts ew Coeur Sublime
All odds correct at time of publication.