So here we go. The famous roar that greets the start of the magnificent and mesmerising Cheltenham Festival is only a matter of hours away.
It’s time to cast aside the trials, the preview nights, the non-runner-no-bet offers, the speculation, the excuses, the vets’ bills and everything else that has characterised the build up and concentrate instead on the real deal.
The list of absentees is as long as your arm. Never in my 33 years of Festival gazing can I remember a greater number of missing stars. Consider this plethora of established or waiting-to-be-established big names, all of whom have fallen to retirement, injury and worse, or to the whims of connections opting to bypass the meeting for alternative targets: Thistlecrack, Sprinter Sacre, Vautour, Faugheen, Annie Power, Don Cossack, Coneygree, Many Clouds, Don Poli, Valseur Lido, Killultagh Vic, Simonsig, Black Hercules, Ar Mad, Min, Barters Hill, Blaklion, Zabana, Coney Island, Our Duke, Waiting Patiently, Finian’s Oscar, American, The Storyteller, Movewiththetimes, Don Bersy, Clan Des Obeaux, Urgent De Gregaine and Josie’s Orders.
However, we still have a Festival. A sorely devalued one, yes, but still one sure to contain all the rich drama and tear-jerking emotion we are used to. We still have 28 high-quality, competitive races, fuelled by £4.3 million worth of prize money. An invigorating plethora of 14 Grade Ones, eight other Graded contests and an intoxicating collection of ten of the best handicaps it is possible to frame. And of course, we still have the magical ingredients that not even a thousand non-runners could sully -- the bonhomie, camaraderie and joie de vivre that enables more than 260,000 enthusiasts to immerse themselves for an entire week in the sport they love, oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the outside world and happy to transform a quiet corner of the Cotswolds into a cauldron of sporting theatre.
Now all we need are 28 winners! Or at least two or three to finance the fun. It has become trendy to claim that punters cannot lose, amid the betting frenzy that yields offers from bookmakers almost too good to turn down. This follows the success of no fewer than ten favourites at last year’s meeting, driving a coach and horses through the Festival’s previous reputation for unpredictability. Nothing left-field prevailed until the very last race of the week when Solar Impulse landed the Grand Annual at 28/1.
My view is that it’s far too early to suggest that the profile of the Festival is changing so radically. A handful of short-priced market leaders look vulnerable to me this week, and I certainly don’t subscribe to the view that the addition of more races to the schedule has somehow diluted the quality and blunted the competitive edge. For example, without the Ryanair Chase and JLT Novices’ Chase over the intermediate distance of 2m4f/5f that so many throw a wobbler about, we would have been robbed of two of the best Festival displays of recent times from VAUTOUR, who was most unlikely to stay the Gold Cup trip. And without the Ryanair Chase, which is now firmly established as one of the great races on the calendar, AP McCoy would not have been able to mark his farewell Festival with a winner. The extra variety and choice have, in my opinion, boosted the meeting’s appeal, and I remain an ardent supporter of an extension to a fifth day (six races on each, necessitating just two extra ones) to incorporate a Saturday.
However, just as 12 months ago, I do expect the 2017 Festival to be bossed by the big owners, such as Gigginstown Stud, JP McManus and Rich Ricci, the big jockeys, such as Ruby Walsh, and the big trainers, such as Willie Mullins. Despite his well-documented loss of charges owned by Gigginstown, and subsequent injury travails, Mullins is still bringing over another formidable squad of horses and with his native country nurturing another superpower in the training ranks, Gordon Elliott, I am staggered to the point of falling over that Ireland remain so generously priced to saddle more winners than the UK again.
British or Irish, favourites or no favourites, my eve-of-meeting selections below are based on running plans, ground reports and weather forecasts updated as accurately as possible on Sunday evening. I have covered every race, with 1-2-3 or 1-2-3-4 predictions for each. My first choices should be backed to win. If they don’t run or are re-routed elsewhere, they should be replaced by the second or third choices. However, the supplementary selections should be strongly considered, depending on your budget, for potential win or each/way purposes too, particularly in the case of non-runners. Given the richly-endowed, competitive fields at the Festival, you should never be shy of backing more than one horse per race. Good luck!
DAY ONE (Tuesday)
1.30 (Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2m) 1 RIVER WYLDE, 2 Ballyandy, 3 Elgin, 4 Cilaos Emery.
2.10 (Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase 2m) 1 ALTIOR, 2 Cloudy Dream, 3 Flying Angel.
2.50 (Ultima Handicap Chase 3m1f) 1 DOCTOR HARPER, 2 Another Hero, 3 Singlefarmpayment, 4 Marinero, 5 Junction Fourteen.
3.30 (Stan James Champion Hurdle 2m) 1 YANWORTH, 2 Petit Mouchoir, 3 Buveur D’Air.
4.10 (OLBG Mares’ Hurdle 2m4f) 1 VROUM VROUM MAG, 2 Limini, 3 Apple’s Jade.
4.50 (JT McNamara National Hunt Novices’ Chase 4m) 1 CHAMPERS ON ICE, 2 A Genie In Abottle, 3 Arpege D’Alene.
5.30 (Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase 2m4f) 1 TWO TAFFS, 2 Bun Doran, 3 Gold Present, 4 Tully East, 5 Potters Legend.
DAY TWO (Wednesday)
1.30 (Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle 2m5f) 1 LET’S DANCE, 2 Shattered Love, 3 Willoughby Court, 4 Monalee, 5 Cilaos Emery.
2.10 (RSA Novices’ Chase 3m) 1 MIGHT BITE, 2 Alpha Des Obeaux, 3 Acapella Bourgeois.
2.50 (Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m5f) 1 NO COMMENT, 2 Mister Miyagi, 3 Automated, 4 Supasundae, 5 Bleu Et Rouge.
3.30 (Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m) 1 DOUVAN, 2 Fox Norton, 3 God’s Own.
4.10 (Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase 3m6f) 1 AUVERGNAT, 2 Cantlow, 3 Sausalito Sunrise.
4.50 (Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m) 1 DREAMCATCHING, 2 Dino Velvet, 3 Diable De Sivola.
5.30 (Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m) 1 WESTERN RYDER, 2 Fayonagh, 3 Cause Toujours, 4 Someday, 5 Irish Roe.
DAY THREE (Thursday)
1.30 (JLT Novices’ Chase 2m4f) 1 DISKO, 2 Politologue, 3 Top Notch.
2.10 (Pertemps Network Handicap Hurdle 3m) 1 IMPULSIVE STAR, 2 Barney Dwan, 3 Rocklander, 4 Dadsintrouble, 5 Isleofhopendreams
2.50 (Ryanair Chase 2m5f) 1 UN DE SCEAUX, 2 Uxizandre, 3 Josses Hill.
3.30 (Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle 3m) 1 JEZKI, 2 Shaneshill, 3 Snow Falcon.
4.10 (Brown and Merriebelle Plate Handicap Chase 2m5f) 1 LA VATICANE, 2 Henryville, 3 Pougne Bobbi, 4 Starchitect, 5 Red Spinner.
4.50 (Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle 2m1f) 1 LET’S DANCE, 2 La Bague Au Roi, 3 Coillte Lass, 4 Shattered Love.
5.30 (Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Handicap Chase 3m2f) 1 DOCTOR HARPER, 2 Another Hero, 3 Mall Dini, 4 Southfield Royale.
DAY FOUR (Friday)
1.30 (JCB Triumph Hurdle 2m1f) 1 CHARLI PARCS, 2 Landofhopeandglory, 3 Bapaume, 4 Soldier In Action.
2.10 (Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle 2m1f) 1 MICK JAZZ, 2 Vosne Romanee, 3 Song Light, 4 Winter Escape, 5 Verni.
2.50 (Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle 3m) 1 WHOLESTONE, 2 The Worlds End, 3 Monalee, 4 Penhill.
3.30 (Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup 3m2f) 1 NATIVE RIVER, 2 Sizing John, 3 Outlander, 4 Minella Rocco.
4.10 (St James’s Palace Foxhunters’ Chase 3m2f) 1 ON THE FRINGE, 2 Black Thunder, 3 Wonderful Charm.
4.50 (Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle 2m4f) 1 NO COMMENT, 2 Brio Conti, 3 Verni, 4 Rather Be, 5 Coo Star Sivola.
5.30 (Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase 2m) 1 STARCHITECT, 2 Velvet Maker, 3 Red Spinner, 4 Mad Jack Mytton.