17 Aug 2022

THE PUNTER'S EYE: Cheltenham tips and race preview 2018

The biggest festival of the racing calendar returns

THE PUNTER'S EYE: Cheltenham tips and preview 2018

Sizing John takes the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2017

Our resident racing writer has run the rule over the runners and riders for some of the big races at the 2018 Cheltenham Festival and these are the horses he's backing:

Day 1 - Tuesday, March 13

Arkle Chase - 14:10

Footpad is perhaps the most fancied Willie Mullins runner on Day 1 of the festival, and will be in many people's multiple bets on Tuesday. Since finishing third behind Uknowwhatimeanharry at Punchestown last year in a Grade 1 hurdle, he has been foot perfect over fences. He has recorded three wins from three starts since November. He slammed Brelade by 11 lengths on chasing debut, Any Second Now by 11 lengths next time out, and Petit Mouchoir by five lengths most recently. No horse has come close to laying a glove on him and he has won all three races without hitting top gear. This year's renewal of the Arkle is far from vintage and Footpad's main opposition will be Petit Mouchoir. The challengers from England in this race this year don't look up to much to me and I think it could be a 1-2-3 for the Irish.

1. Footpad (6/4)

2. Petit Mouchoir (9/4)

3. Kemboy (25/1)

Champion Hurdle - 15:30

In fairness to last year's winnner, Buveur D'Air, he hasn't put a foot wrong in the 12 months since, while former champion Faugheen has endured a massively disrupted preparation. Buveur D'Air is a worthy favourite, but is now 1/2, not least because of Faugheen's woes. Buveur D'Air has won his four starts since last year's Cheltenham festival, while Faugheen has had just three runs and one win since January 2016. He was thought to have been amiss when pulled up at Leopardstown over Christmas, while he just seemed to be missing his old spark when outfought by Supasundae in the Irish Champion Hurdle in February. That was on soft ground and the horse was coming back after that disaster at Christmas, and given the fact Supasundae is favourite for the stayers hurdle at Cheltenham this year, that race represented Faugheen's best run in a long time. He had beaten Jezki by 16 lengths in November 2017, but it's clear that horse is nowhere near the force he was when landing the 2014 champion hurdle. Willie Mullins has plugged away with his former star and he's well aware that Cheltenham brings the best out in him. He's won both of his starts at the track and like Willie, I'd be willing to give a horse of such class one more chance, especially at odds of 5/1. 

1. Faugheen (5/1)

2. Buveur D'Air (1/2)

3. Melon (14/1)

Mare's Hurdle - 16:10

This year, it looks like Gordon Elliott's Apple's Jade is once again the horse to beat at 4/7. She could very well have been sent to the Champion Hurdle and had a good chance, but Elliott has chosen to enter her in the race she won last year. She saw off Vroum Vroum Mag that day in a head-bobbing finish, and remains unbeaten since. She's beaten the likes of Nichols Canyon and Supasundae in that time, and should have far too much for anything thrown at her here. An interesting outsider for each-way punters is Jer's Girl. She hasn't had the best time of things injury wise in recent years, but has put together two pleasing warm-up efforts for this race. Most notably, she was just two lengths behind Apple's Jade in the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle at Navan in November. It's also worth pointing out that despite falling in this race at Cheltenham last year, she was travelling smoothly on the inside before she came down three from home. She could well have been in the frame had she stayed upright and I believe she could run into a place this term. 

1. Apple's Jade (4/7)

2. Jer's Girl (20/1)

3. Augusta Kate (14/1)

Day 2 - Wednesday, March 14

Ballymore Novices Hurdle - 13:30 

Samcro has been labelled a monster, a freak, and a 'sure-thing' by many a shrewd judge, and by all accounts, the hype is justified in this instance. Gordon Elliott himself has been taken aback by his quality and admits he was purchased to be a big three-mile chaser, meaning we could see him wearing the Gigginstown colours to victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the coming years. For now, he sets his sights on the Ballymore and looks a cut above the rest of this field. If the hype is real, and I think it is, this one will be bounding up the hill to victory at Prestbury Park. Next Destination lines up here instead of the Albert Bartlett, and he has the class to give him a race. 

1. Samcro (4/7)

2. Next Destination (4/1)

3. Vision Des Flos (20/1)

RSA Chase - 14:10 

Looking at the RSA, I was tempted by an each-way bet on Black Corton after seeing his recent win at Ascot, but odds of 7/1 are just a little short. The value is still available on my idea of the nailed on winner, Presenting Percy. You may even get 3/1 about about this fella closer to race time. He would be close to odds-on if fellow Irish raider Monalee wasn't in the field. This is considered a match between those two in some quarters, and perhaps that does a disservice to the British horses, but I would be very surprised if the winner didn't come from those two. I've sided with Presenting Percy because he has considerable course form having won the Pertemps here last March. That was a good Pertemps Final and Pat Kelly's charge bounded up the Cheltenham hill looking like a horse that could win a Gold Cup in time. The ground should be similar this year, but he's performed on heavy too, so even if there's a deluge, he'll get through it. Monalee is no slouch and won a good Grade 1 novice chase at Leopardstown last time out, and was second behind Penhill in the Albert Bartlett last season. It will be a good battle, but I think Presenting Percy will outstay his rival up the hill. 

1. Presenting Percy (5/2)

2. Monalee (10/3)

3. Black Corton (7/1)

Champion Bumper - 17:30 

Last year's champion bumper was won by Gordon Elliott's Fayonagh, a horse that looked a future star until an untimely demise through injury. The race did produce some great talent including Next Destination who was fourth on that occasion. The same owner, Malcolm Denmark, has another horse entered here again this year. Mercy Mercy Me is trained by Fergal O'Brien and there's a lot to like about the six-year-old son of Shirocco. He's had just one run ahead of a tilt at this but is highly thought of. That run came last November when he easily saw off the challenge of Classic Ben, a horse that has gone on to win twice since. There will be unknowns with all of these horses, but at a big price, I think Mercy Mercy Me is worth siding with ahead of the Irish horses. 

1. Mercy Mercy Me (25/1)

2. Blackbow (5/1)

3. Know The Score (20/1)

Day 3

JLT Novices Chase - 13:30 

Finian's Oscar will wear the colours of the late Alan and Ann Potts this year, and they are famous silks worn to victory many times up the Cheltenham hill by the likes of Sizing Europe and Sizing John. This horse hasn't had the ideal preparation for this race having been pulled up in a race won by Agrapart at Cheltenham in January, but before that he looked a good prospect. He was an excellent hurdler, winning four of his six starts over timber, and has already notched two wins in four starts over fences. He's also shown he can perform at Cheltenham having seen off Movewiththetimes at the track last November, despite making a series of mistakes over the obstacles. Movewiththetimes is a decent yardstick, and you'd have to expect that further schooling has sharpened up Finians Oscar's jumping, although that looked far from certain at Ascot in December. Nevertheless, he seems able to be competitive regardless and he'll definitely like soft ground. If his jumping holds up, this could be an emotional winner for the Potts family. 

1. Finian's Oscar (7/1)

2. Invitation Only (10/3)

3. Terrefort (5/1)

Stayers Hurdle - 15:30 

A race dominated by the likes of Big Bucks for so long, this year's Stayers Hurdle looks hugely competitive. Once again, an Irish raider, Supasundae, who beat Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out, is among the market leaders, but there are a host of horses lining up to take a cut off him. Sam Spinner is vying for favouritism with Jessica Harrington's runner, and there is nothing to dislike about his preparation, but the one I like at an each-way price is L'Ami Serge for Nicky Henderson. Notably, he was second in last year's County Hurdle behind Arctic Fire, a horse that finished second to Faugheen in the 2015 Champion Hurdle. Ivanovich Gorbatov was 6th in that County Hurdle, which looks like a particular strong renewal in hindsight. L'Ami Serge has been a model of consistency since that race, winning twice and finishing in the front three in six of the seven races he's run in that intervening period. He finished second to one of the market leaders for this race, Sam Spinner, at Ascot in December, finishing ahead of the likes of Unowhatimeanharry and Lil Rockerfeller. You cannot ignore consistency, course form and odds of 12/1 when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival. A big run beckons.

1. L'Ami Serge (12/1)

2. Supasundae (3/1)

3. Yanworth (5/1)

Mare's Novices Hurdle - 16:50

Like many of Willie Mullins recent mares, Laurina is a french import who has been hugely impressive in her two Irish starts. She made her debut over two miles at Tramore in December, and despite the heavy ground in the south east, she bolted up to win by 15 lengths. In late January she went to Fairyhouse, again on heavy ground, and demolished a decent field, including next-time-out winner Alletrix who was 11 lengths behind her in second. The manner in which she went clear on the bridle that day and won without really breaking sweat suggests she could be of the ilk of Vroum Vroum Mag or even Annie Power in time. For that reason, many a shrewd judge has pegged her as their festival banker, and the fact that she'll handle the ground, which could be soft come Thursday, is a major plus for a young horse.

1. Laurina (4/7)

2. Countister (11/1)

3. Stormy Ireland (7/1)

Day 4

Gold Cup - 15:30 

With Sizing John out of the Gold Cup, it looks an extremely competitive renewal. Last year's second Minella Rocco will be back hoping to go one better, the ever reliable Djakadam may get his ground, while Might Bite is 'the horse that would be king' with all the potential to be a superstar. However, last year's third Native River is going somewhat under the radar despite being the 4/1 second favourite. Those in Britain are talking up Might Bite while many in Irish circles are saying last year's Irish Grand National winner Our Duke looks like a Gold Cup winner. That puts five or six horses in the frame before you even mention Road to Respect or Definitely Red. Native River has been laid out for this and was given just the one prep run ahead of his second tilt at the Gold Cup. That came in the Grade 2 Denman Chase at Newbury in February and he was magnificent, beating Cloudy Dream by 12 lengths. Saphir Du Rheu, who was fifth in last year's Gold Cup behind Sizing John, was a full 36 lengths behind Native River in that Newbury race. The one thing about this horse is he's an out and out stayer, and in fact was second in the four-miler at Cheltenham in 2016. He'll love the soft ground and has the engine to see off all comers on Gold Cup day. 

1. Native River (4/1)

2. Might Bite (3/1)

3. Djakadam (25/1)

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