By Ash Symonds
It’s finally upon us and I seriously can’t wait. Yes, that’s right, it’s Cheltenham week!
This is something I base my whole year around. That may be bad, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to wish days away as I like to take in all the racing during both the flat and jumps season, but these four days in March are simply wonderful.
Having been a regular Cheltenham Post columnist for over 15 months, I have had press access to plenty of events across the country ahead of this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and with horse racing’s Olympics on our doorstep, these are my finalised fancies for the big week ahead.
BANKER: Mighty Potter 11/8, Turners Novices’ Chase (Thursday)
In what may not seem like an original selection for the Festival, I first have to draw your attention to a preview piece I did for the Cheltenham Post in early October.
During my season preview, I highlighted three horses to follow for the season. One was Ramillies, the second favourite for this season’s National Hunt Chase, Fil Dor, an outsider for the Arkle, and a certain Mighty Potter, the now two-time Grade 1 winner over fences.
At the time of publication, Gordon Elliott’s six-year-old was a sterling 14/1 for the Turners Novices’ Chase. Fast-forward five months and the Martaline gelding is the 6/4 favourite following his dominant display at the Dublin Racing Festival in February, a day that saw his scorch to an eight-length success in the Ladbrokes Novice Chase.
Taking my Mighty Potter tinted glasses off for five minutes, this performance was very impressive, however, not short of a few mistakes.
Going away from the stands at the sixth fence he made a small mistake but regained his momentum instantly and his leap over the final flight wasn’t exactly majestic, however, compared to his Drinmore Novice Chase win where he shunted through the fourth last, he was much better at Leopardstown. Just take a look at how he jumped the penultimate fence and you’ll understand what I mean.
I love this horse, and with a good gust of wind, he could be a serious horse over three miles next season, potentially making him a Gold Cup contender. That all depends on how he handles a test like the Turners, but from my position, he will be very hard to beat.
FAVOURITE TO TAKE ON: Vaucelet 2/1, Hunters’ Chase
I’m going to the race directly after the Gold Cup for my favourite to leave simply because I think there are better horses at bigger prices in the race.
Firstly, Vaucelet is a good horse. His recent win at Down Royal and victory at Stratford last May were great to watch, especially due to the fact the eight-year-old had to give away seven pounds to the runner-up last time out.
However, I could name five horses I would rather back than the current favourite. Looking back at last year’s renewal, Billaway just got the better of Winged Leader in a tight finish with the rest of the field at long intervals in behind. It was two hunter chase horses providing a great spectacle to the crowd in a fairly weak renewal of the race.
However, this year sees an injection of new hunter chase horses enter the scene, horses that not too long ago were fighting at Grade 1 level consistently.
For example, Paul Nicholls’ Secret Investor, my strongest fancy for the race, beat stablemate Clan Des Obeaux in the Denman Chase in 2021 before suffering a major setback, however, since returning to the track, he has bolted up on his two starts in this Grade and he is 10/1 for the race.
Furthermore, Nicholls is a fan of his chances for the race, as he recently said: He’s qualified for that and hopefully he’ll give Nat a great ride. He’s been a good horse and hopefully, he’ll be right in the mix.
“We had Pacha Du Polder win this race before and he’s not unlike Pacha as he’s a nice horse who’s dropped down the weights. He’s won two from two and looked really classy so he’s got to be in the mix.”
Further down the field, Chris’s Dream and The Storyteller shared the 1-2 position in the 2020 Grade 1 Ladbrokes Novice Chase, Ferns Lock bolted up on his last start to beat Billaway by 20 lengths, and you still have to remember the credentials of last year’s first and second place.
I’m not saying he has no chance of winning as that would be very unfair, however, when you look at his form compared to former Grade 1 horses – animals who may not be at their best anymore, granted – then I think there are plenty more options to take than the 2/1 current favourite.
Championship Race Fancy: Conflated 12/1 – Gold Cup
Of all the five championship races at the Cheltenham Festival, the Gold Cup is the most open contest by far.
The Champion Hurdle is Constitution Hill’s for the taking, as is the Ryanair for Shishkin, the Champion Chase looks to be between the top of the market, and, in fairness, the Stayers Hurdle is also relatively open but lacks strength in depth.
From my personal view, I believe there are potentially seven horses who can win the race, but I am a huge fan of one and that happens to be Gordon Elliott’s Conflated.
This nine-year-old Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding was running a great race and would have probably been second to Allaho in last season’s Ryanair, a race trainer Elliott now believes was the “wrong race” for him in hindsight.
Following that, he was a great second to Clan Des Obeaux in the Aintree Bowl, was good on reappearance in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal, and decisively won the Grade 1 Savills Chase at Leopardstown at Christmas.
He beat Kemboy, a future winner in the Grade 3 Bobbyjo Chase, and Fury Road, runner-up to Galopin Des Champs at the Dublin Racing Festival, last time out, and although Willie Mullins’ favourite could be hard to beat, I have a few questions marks at how good he actually was when we last saw him.
Therefore, with a big swing of the bat, I’m happy to be in the Conflated camp for this year’s blue-ribboned event at the Festival.
Starting on day one, I’m happy to have a few quid on Common Practice in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
This Joseph O’Brien-trained four-year-old is one I’ve had an eye on for since his fourth to Lossiemouth in the Grade 3 Bar One Racing Juvenile Hurdle last December as he travelled very well into the race and was competing head-to-head with the now Triumph Hurdle favourite and Zarak The Brave, a well-regarded horse in the Willie Mullins stable.
Bringing it back to his maiden hurdle win at Galway in October, he won that very easily on heavy ground and since the turn of the new year, he was best of the rest behind the extremely impressive Blood Destiny in January and unseated his rider at the Dublin Racing Festival on his most recent start.
If the ground turns up Good to Soft, at 16/1, he has to have a good chance.
The next horse I will be backing is Gordon Elliott’s Call Me Lyreen, but this horse comes with a warning.
He is currently entered in four races at the Cheltenham Festival; two chases and two hurdles. I think they will lean towards staying over fences with him as that’s what he has been doing this season and there seems to be no glaring issue as to why they should revert back to hurdles.
This then draws another issue as to whether he is heading to the Grand Annual or the Plate. I couldn’t tell you which one he is more likely to go to, only Mr Elliott would know that, but his stamina has been shining through well this season so a potential tilt at the Plate over a longer distance may be in the reckoning.
But why do I fancy him?
Firstly, he will only be running off seven pounds higher (145) than his last winning mark over hurdles, but since his last victory, he has run into some nice horses.
During the summer of 2022, he was second to Visionarian when giving away four pounds, a now 148-rated horse, in July. After that, he was running a mighty race behind Easy Game and Kemboy in the Kerry Group Chase at Listowel in September before falling at the fourth-last – those two horses are rated 161 and 157 respectively.
Good ground is key to his chances, something that he is likely to get if the rain stays away, so if that occurs, Call Me Lyreen could be dangerous off 145 as I think he is a Graded horse for next year.
And finally, we are going to the last race of the week for my closing argument.
In the Martin Pipe Conditionals Handicap Hurdle, I think that Imagine for Gordon Elliott has a massive chance at 8/1 off a handicap mark of 139.
This five-year-old gelding has always looked like he would be better over a longer distance and the Martin Pipe could suit him right down to the ground.
Following his maiden hurdle success at Wexford in October, the Caldwell Construction Ltd-owned gelding was staying on at Navan in November behind Hercule Du Seuil, tried to make all on his next start when he was just beaten at the finish by Inothewayurthinkin, and ran a great race behind the Hunters Yarn last time out in a Listed event at Navan.
Hunters Yarn is now rated 147 for Willie Mullins and is a 14/1 shot for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, so if he runs to the same level as his second in early February, Gordon Elliott could finish the week in great style, hopefully, if all things go well, adding to his victory earlier in the week with Mighty Potter.
In conclusion, this year, as with every Cheltenham Festival, is one to savour and enjoy. It’s the second renewal of the meeting with fans allowed into Prestbury Park since the pandemic, so if you are attending, give every horse you back a big old shout. As after all, isn’t that why we all love horse racing? Three minutes of anticipation during the race, 10 seconds of pure exhilaration at the finish, and an eternity of happiness if you manage to back a winner.
It’s Cheltenham, and it’s ‘four days of extraordinary’.