The waiting is over and at just after 1.30pm this afternoon one of the most famous roars in all of sport will ring out from the Cheltenham grandstands as the 2023 Festival gets underway.
SUPREME NOVICES’ HURDLE
That opening contest, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, will be run on soft ground after persistent rain at the track in recent days.
As a result, many of today’s contests are likely to become real stamina tests, so it should pay to look for horses who not only handle underfoot conditions, but also have the potential to stay further than the distance their race is being run over.
Plenty of the Irish runners bring soft ground form with them and Willie Mullins will be disappointed if one of his four raiders from Closutton that go to post in the opener doesn’t get him off to the perfect start.
The most fancied in the market is Facile Vega. He may win if back to the sort of form that saw him hose up in last season’s Festival bumper, but he isn’t a great price based on his blowout last time at Leopardstown at the Dublin Racing Festival.
The winner of that race was his stablemate, IL ETAIT TEMPS, and that is surely the strongest piece of form on offer here.
IL ETAIT TEMPS caught the eye in last year’s Triumph when finishing fifth despite a lack of experience and pulling way too hard during the race.
The penny seemed to drop at Leopardstown and despite still travelling strongly throughout that contest, he had enough left in the tank to hit the line hard. A repeat of that effort today should be enough to see him take the opener.
Having tipped Tahmuras for this race ante post, we still think Paul Nicholl’s runner has a decent each way chance. He looks a strong stayer over the trip, so the rain should have helped his chances, but at an even bigger price we think DARK RAVEN is worth an interest.
He finished upsides Inthepocket in fourth place behind IL ETAIT TEMPS last time out, and yet is four times the price of that horse today.
He registered an extremely impressive Racing Post Rating of 130 when winning a valuable bumper in 2021 and beat Doctor Bravo on his hurdling debut In December. Back him with one of the bookies who is offering at least 4 places.
Mullins’ Diverge is also worth a second look.
ARKLE NOVICES’ CHASE
Ireland’s number one trainer can make it a quick fire double in the Arkle, courtesy of EL FABIOLO.
He was another to win at the Dublin Racing Festival, where he looked a real star in the making.
By contrast, Jonbon was far from convincing in his trial and time may tell that he needs to be upped in trip. Our selection may, therefore, have most to fear from stablemate Dysart Dynamo, as long as Mullin’s second string doesn’t go off too fast in front.
It is hard to get excited about many of the outsiders, although Hollow Games look a likely type to pick up the pieces should the race fall apart on this soft ground.
ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE
The meeting’s first handicap, the Ultima, is a much more appealing betting race, with there being plenty of runners at big prices that you can give chances to.
Venetia Williams is always a trainer to follow in staying handicap chases, especially, when the ground is soft, and CLOUDY GLEN looked to have the perfect prep for this when third over 3m 4f at Haydock last time out.
He was second in the 2021 Kim Muir at the Festival and won the big Newbury handicap (formerly known as the Hennessy) later that year.
Last year’s winner, Corach Rambler, looks a big danger, but Gary Moore’s NASSALAM is arguably less exposed over fences, particularly given that he looks ready for today’s step up in trip. He has run well here twice already in big handicaps this season.
Happygolucky and The Big Breakaway are others to consider, but for those looking for one at a big price, it might be worth throwing a few quid at KARL PHILIPPE.
Fergal O’Brien has a great record at the track and this is another horse who may benefit from the greater test of stamina here after being outpaced over a shorter trip last time out.
Next up is the big race of the day, the Champion Hurdle, which features the potential star of the whole meeting, CONSTITUTION HILL.
We think he will account for his chief market rival, State Of Play, with the same ease with which he has seen off all of his challengers from this side of the Irish Sea.
He looks a banker, but is obviously priced as such. Let’s hope our ante post tip, Vauban, can run into a place at least. We do think he is better than he showed behind State of Play last time out.
CLOSE BROTHERS MARES’ HURDLE
Constitution Hill’s presence in the Champion Hurdle has been a real boost for the Mares Hurdle, with both Honeysuckle and Epatante being re-routed here.
However, we think the pair will have to play second fiddle to MARIE’S ROCK who was so impressive both at this meeting last year and on her comeback here in the Relkeel.
There is real strength in depth in this division currently and it is hard to rule out any of the nine runners. The pick of those at double figure prices could be ECHOS IN RAIN, who looks worth another go at this trip.