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The Cheltenham Festival 2015 is spread over four days from the 10th to the 13th of March, and it really is, as they say, ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’. It’s the highlight of the National Hunt season, where the very best horses meet to do battle for a number of top prizes. It’s looming large on the racing calender, and over the next few weeks we’re previewing each day in turn, starting with the opener – Champions Day.
There are seven races on the opening day, with the three big races among them the Champion Hurdle, The Arkle Trophy and The Supreme Novices Hurdle.
1.30 Supreme Novices Hurdle (2m 1/2f)
2.05 Racing Post Arkle Trophy Steeple Chase (2m)
2.40 Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase (3m 1/2f)
3.20 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (2m 1/2f)
4.00 Mares’ Hurdle (David Nicholson Trophy) (2m 4f)
4.40 National Hunt Chase (4m)
5.15 Novice’s Handicap Chase (2m 4 1/2f)
Supreme Novices Hurdle
The curtain-raiser for the Festival is the Supreme Novices Hurdle, run over the same course as the Champion Hurdle, for horses four years-old and upwards. It usually attracts a large field and will feature some of the future stars of hurdling. There are eight hurdles for the novices to negotiate during the race, and it has thrown up plenty of future Cheltenham stars in the past. Last year’s race was won by the Willie Mullin’s trained Vautour, with Nicky Henderson’s Josses Hill in second. Those two horses have both progressed to fences over the last twelve months, and will renew rivalries in the Arkle Trophy later in the day.
Irish raiders are no strangers to success at Cheltenham, and Mullin’s also saddled the 2013 winner in Champagne Fever. He has a strong hand again this year with the current ante-post favourite Douvan, and Irish raiders in general have a good record, with 9 wins in the race since the turn of the century. Douvan carries the same colours as Vautour and Champagne Fever, and has been utterly impressive in his races so far. He beat subsequent Grade One winner, Sizing John by 12 lengths before going on to win the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown with ease.
Douvan – 9/4 3.25 +225 2.25 2.25 -0.44 with 888Sport
His biggest opponent will be Nicky Henderson’s charge, L’Ami Serge, who like Douvan is a French import and has won all of his races since crossing the channel. He caught the eye with his facile victory in the Tolworth Hurdle, but if there’s one question mark it is over the ground, as all of his races so far have been on a soft surface. It remains to be seen how he’ll cope with the likely quicker ground at Cheltenham.
Beyond these two, there are a few lively outsiders with the likes of Dermot Weld’s Silver Concorde at 16/1 17.00 +1600 16.00 16.00 -0.06 among them.
The showpiece of the day’s racing, the Champion Hurdle, will see Hurricane Fly – one of the most popular horses in training – return to the scene of his 2011 and 2013 wins in the big race. He became the first horse in 38 years to retain the title having finished third in 2012, and won a record fifth Irish Champion Hurdle just last week. He beat last year’s winner of this race, Jezki, in that one, and they will match up once again at Cheltenham.
At eleven years of age and with 22 Grade One wins under his belt, there would be no more popular winner than Hurricane Fly, but stablemate Faugheen, the Nigel Twiston-Davies trained The New One, and Jezki are three formidable opponents.
Faugheen (pictured above) is the hot favourite for the race and jockey Ruby Walsh must decide whether to ride him or to stick with Hurrican Fly. That’s an unenviable decision, and Walsh has said he’ll keep punters guessing and won’t make his mind up until two days before the race. Most assume he’ll choose Faugheen, who has been more than impressive in winning all of his eight races to date – living up to his reputation as ‘The Machine’ – but both Mullin’s and Walsh have been at pains to point out that Hurricane Fly has been there and done it, while Faugheen is the new kid on the block.
Jezki beat Hurricane Fly last year in this race, and although he has lost twice to him this season, Hurrican Fly’s record is superb at Leopardstown where he’s won 10 out of 10, and Jezki could well fare better at Cheltenham just as he did last year. The New One stayed on late past Hurricane Fly last year to take 3rd, and also can’t easily be ruled out.
This is a hugely tough race to call, but the winner is likely to come from the above four. Faugheen is a very short price but he’s been massively impressive in winning all eight of his races so far, including the Neptune Novices Hurdle here last year. He took the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton easily, and if Ruby Walsh opts to ride him as expected, he’s the one to beat. The New One was only beaten 2 1/2 lengths by Jezki last year, but hit a flat spot during the race before staying on late and that is a worry in a race such as this. Hurricane Fly is a real fighter and it’s hard to rule him out, but Jezki could well get the better of him back at Cheltenham, and if Ruby Walsh deserts him for Faugheen the writing could be on the wall for the former champ. At the prices, an each-way bet on Jezki looks perfectly viable on the basis that he ought to be able to run into a place at the very least.
Supreme Novices Hurdle – Douvan – 9/4 3.25 +225 2.25 2.25 -0.44 with 888Sport