Too much to detail in one post, so I'll break it up into the big race analysis here, and the rest of the card in separate article.
R1, 1330. THE SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE
Chasing Fire - undefeated in five starts with three over hurdles, but there is a massive gap in class between Market Rasen (albeit both his wins there were by 16L), a Sandown Class3 Novice and the Festival. The picket fence looks nice but he's far more likely to run 11th than first.
Dark Raven - runs in the famous double green colours of Munir & Souede. Just the two hurdle runs, a 3L win over Doctor Bravo and a third, beaten 9.75L, in the G1 Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival, behind Il Etait Temps and Inthepocket, ahead of Facile Vega. Made jumping errors last time, looks to be the outsider of the Mullins quartet.
Diverge - ex-French Flat galloper. Has had only two starts for Willie Mullins, sixth in High Definition's maiden win at Leopardstown, followed by romping in at Punchestown in a weaker maiden. Can never underestimate Willie's battalion here but the SP difference on debut between him (10/1) and stablemate Parmenion (placed third, 4/5fav) who has shown in two further wins that he's nowhere near this level, suggests that unless he's grown another leg, victory here is unlikely.
Doctor Bravo - an unusual formline for a top novice, he finished a close third in the open-age G3 Red Mills Trial Hurdle a month ago (just behind stablemate Fil Dor and the veteran Sharjah), after winning a maiden at Down Royal. Previous to that, he made his hurdles debut at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, finishing 3L behind Dark Raven, in a time 6.3 seconds slower than High Definition's win on the same card. Gordon Elliott's only runner in the race, I think it's more out of the need to have a runner here rather being a prime target for him.
Facile Vega - just two outright favourites in the last 18 runnings of this race have been successful. Since he disappointed in the G1 Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival (went too hard in front, prefers softer ground), he's been on the drift, but with soft ground now likely for Tuesday, that drift may switch back the other way. Anything other than favouritism would be new for him, his highest SP has only been 15/8. As blue-blooded as you can get in the National Hunt sphere, by super-sire Walk In The Park out of multiple Festival winner Quevega, he won the Champion Bumper last year in awful ground.
Fennor Cross - hasn't raced since November which is a big negative (26 of last 28 winners have raced in same calendar year) but his last two runs have been wins at this track. One of those was the 'G2 Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle' which is a massive misnomer as none of them were anywhere near good enough to win this. Nor is he.
High Definition - the one-time Derby favourite who never lived up to the hype from his 2yo season, failing in his last 12 Flat starts (not helped by being 6xGroup 1, 4x Group 2, 2x Group 3 races!). So instead he went jumping, curiously not being gelded (do Coolmore want to have a National Hunt sire who actually ran over the jumps?), and winning on NH debut in a Leopardstown Maiden Hurdle. He was then thrown in the deep end in the DRF G1 Novice Hurdle and tried taking on Facile Vega in front. He made a mess of the first hurdle (perhaps due to moving from bright sun into shadow behind the stand?), looked to regain his composure then missed a stride coming into the fourth hurdle and unseated his rider. Ended up running last without his rider - that's not a natural jumper to me. This is not a race for poor jumping or losing stride by going too fast. He's disappointed for much of his career, as much as I'd love to see a top Flat-bred become a star over the sticks, I can't see it happening here.
Il Etait Temps - wears a hood, 0/38 runners in headgear have won this race in the past 30 yrs. Won the DRF G1 Novice Hurdle after High Definition unseated and Facile Vega ran out of stamina. Cruised up to the favourite on the bend then ran away from them to win by almost 10L. A fast pace is almost assured here, could he get the perfect race set-up again? Four of the past five winners of that Irish race have won at the Festival - two in the Supreme, two in the Ballymore. Trust Willie, this one has certainly improved for the hood being applied, perhaps it's time for that trend to be beaten?
Inthepocket - ran second in the DRF G1 Novice Hurdle, beaten 9.5L behind Il Etait Temps. He got caught behind the tiring Facile Vega at a key stage of the race but that would only give him two, maybe three, lengths' grace. He dropped back 4f that day, after winning a G2 Novice Hurdle at Naas in mid-December, and looked a bit slow to pick up in the straight at Leopardstown, off quite a fast pace. McManus-owned, De Bromhead-trained, ridden by Rachael Blackmore - three factors you should never ignore at Cheltenham!
Marine Nationale - hasn't run since early December (see Fennors Cross for that trend). Took a huge step forward to win the G1 Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, straight out of maiden company. That was not only a big rise in class, but a big step up for his jockey Michael O'Sullivan, a 5lb claimer, who can't use that advantage in a Grade 1. O'Sullivan arrives in top form having won the Leinster National on Sunday so it's safe to say his claim won't last much longer. In the Royal Bond, he tucked in closely behind the pace, stayed calm until approaching the final hurdle when he came out to make his run, stumbled over the last, lost a few lengths and stayed on to claim victory right on the post. He may not have enough race experience but he certainly has some race smarts. You'd assume he'd be starting favourite if he was in the Mullins or Elliott yards.
Palace Boy - nothing he has done suggests he is remotely good enough to be competitive here. hould be a fun day for the owner anyway.
Rare Edition - beat the well-regarded Rubaud at Kempton on Boxing Day, that horse since being a leading fancy in the Betfair Hurdle (only 10th) and then won the G2 Dovecote a fortnight ago. The concern about Rare Edition was his run in the Listed Hurdle at Huntingdon a month ago when he could run only second in a four-horse field (SP 4/5). Perhaps it was the lack of pace, or the extra 3.5 furlongs he won't face here, if you can forgive that and focus on his profile of progression until that stage, he's a big price.
Strong Leader - the second of Olly Murphy's pair, but like the stablemate, he's been picking off easy wins at a much weaker level and this looks way above his pay grade.
Tahmuras - Paul Nicholls runner who took out the Tolworth at Sandown in early January. Probably the leading chance of the UK contingent, but doesn't look as dynamic as the main Irish hopes. A grinder who might need further, or a hectic pace upfront.
Interesting race to kick off the Festival, it mightn't have quite the hype of previous years with the favourite going sour in recent weeks (although recent rain might negate that), but intriguing all the same. Horses coming into this race off an unplaced run have a rotten record, excusing Labaik, the talented rogue who would regularly refuse to race apart from that day in 2017, and you have to go back to the mid-90s to find a Supreme winner who was unplaced last time out.
The Irish will probably win this, but this is a race for cashing in on as many special offers as you can, and having a bit each-way on Rare Edition.
RARE EDITION each-way (28/1), Marine Nationale, Il Etait Temps.
R2, 1420. ARKLE NOVICES' CHASE
Ballybreeze - comes into this race on a winning streak of one, his only victory in eight starts. Rated 42lbs below the favourite El Fabiolo. He's lucky jumps tracks are so large, he'd be at risk of getting lapped in a Flat race on a tight circuit. 150/1 still isn't enough.
Dysart Dynamo - was joint favourite in the Supreme last year but fell three hurdles out. He then went to Punchestown and failed badly there in a G1. There was hope he'd put that behind him with a 28L win at Xmas on his chasing debut but he was beaten over 10L in the Irish equivalent of this race, behind today's favourite. There was very little left in the tank on that occasion and the trends are terrible for horses not finishing in the first two at their previous start.
El Fabiolo - two chase starts for two very easy victories. His only failure since leaving France for Willie Mullins was a neck second to (the more-experienced) Jonbon at Aintree last season, just his second run over hurdles. In that race he was hampered by a horse who unseated the rider two hurdles out, so you can make a strong case he could have overturned that narrow defeat. He won the Irish Arkle barely raising a sweat in a field that's at least as strong as this one. He is good, very good, and these conditions look perfect for him.
Ha D'Or - has had three runs over fences since losing by four lengths to El Fabiolo at Punchestown last season. But he hasn't progressed at all - his gap between hurdle and chase Racing Post ratings is just 4lbs (after three runs) while for El Fabiolo, it is already out to 11lbs from just two starts over the big sticks. Nope.
Hollow Games - was sent off for wind surgery after he flopped in the G1 Novice Chase on Boxing Day (/St. Stephen's Day) at Leopardstown. His hurdling form last season was solid, with placings in Irish G1s and a third in the Martin Pipe at last year's festival. On chase debut early in the season, he won comfortably at Navan, finishing 9L ahead of the useful yardstick Colonel Mustard, who at his next start was beaten 19L by El Fabiolo (who also carried 5lbs more). If the wind op has the desired effect and restores his upward progression, he's a decent EW chance at big odds.
Jonbon - the star brother to Douvan who we're all waiting for to start racking up the big festival scalps. From nine starts to date, his one defeat came in the Supreme here last year at the hands of Constitution Hill - no shame in that considering how short he will go off in the Champion Hurdle later! He followed that up with a G1 Novice Hurdle win at Aintree, over co-favourite here El Fabiolo. His three chasing runs haven't tested him much, long odds-on in all of them, against seven rivals in total. You can only beat who turns up but it doesn't let a horse hit high ratings marks. So what's left up his sleeve?
Saint Roi - won the Xmas G1 Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown but only started 10/1 in the Irish Arkle and threw the rider behind El Fabiolo and Dysart Dynamo. I feel he's in that awkward place, not quite good enough to be a top-class chaser (will run third/fourth regularly in these races), but probably too good for the big handicap races. A racing purgatory of sorts. Yet to put a gap between his hurdle and chase ratings, just 1lb the difference on official and RP ratings.
Straw Fan Jack - won his first two chase runs in October before fading at Newbury on what-used-to-be-known as Hennessy Day. He hasn't raced since so perhaps there was something amiss that day. Rory Delargy put up a case for this one at huge EW odds at the Tote preview night, expecting the field to cut up a bit and the favs taking each other on. Not sure I can with a field of nine, although there are a couple in the field here for owners' tickets and nothing more.
Effernock Fizz - I doubt many other novice chasers have come into the Arkle with as many chase starts (10) in their career, running regularly (also on the Flat) since the start of the season. From those ten starts over fences, he has won just once. There's a valid reason you'll get three-figure odds on him.
A proper GB vs Ireland battle here. You can make solid cases for El Fabiolo and Jonbon, it's hard to knock either. Any bet here for me is likely to be on Hollow Games ew or without the two favs, if the wind op has worked, he should still be staying on at the end.
EL FABIOLO, Jonbon, Hollow Games (33/1 ew or w/o both favs ~8/1)
R4. 1530. CHAMPION HURDLE
This has two-horse race written all over it, so much so that I won't even bother with the runner-by-runner analysis.
Constitution Hill - those in the know say he could be better than Istabraq, the greatest hurdler of the modern era. Has only been beaten once in his career, in an Irish point-to-point on debut. Of all the regrets in life, consider the owner of his conqueror that day, Anyharminasking. P2P winners can go for ridiculous prices, but this one was sold for €145k just five days after that race. Had he waited for six or twelve months to let the formline of Constitution Hill develop (five starts, five wins including four Grade 1s, smallest winning margin 12L), who knows what crazy price he might have gone for??
The current official BHA rating gap between the pair is 38lbs, Gay Smith and Jonjo O'Neill have a handy Class 3 hurdler, while Michael Buckley and Nicky Henderson have a machine.
If you were to crab him, you could say he's beaten the same horse, Epatante, in the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdle by a long way in his two runs this season. His Irish opponent has at least had different runners-up behind him, in Sharjah, Vauban and Honeysuckle respectively, all 4-5L behind.
State Man has won a trio of G1s this season, the Morgiana, Matheson and Irish Champion Hurdles, against better opposition. Since finding defeat at his first two starts (one in France, one for Henderson), he has reeled off six wins in a row, including the County Hurdle in an impressive manner at last year's festival. His ratings are good but they're still several pounds below the favourite. Even the Irish are conceding this one.
CONSTITUTION HILL, State Man, daylight...
R5, 1610. MARES' HURDLE
Brandy Love - won the G1 Mares Novice at Fairyhouse last Easter but then didn't return to the course until three weeks ago, when she was errant in running third in the G3 Quevega at Punchestown. You can't afford to be sloppy in your jumping at Cheltenham, especially in such a competitive race. On raw ability, she's not far off these and probably least exposed, but she'll need to be far tidier over the obstacles.
Echoes In Rain - another classy mare from the Willie Mullins stable. The concern amongst pundits has been her capacity to stay 2.5 miles, based on this race last year (6.5L fifth behind Marie's Rock) and falling in the G1 Hatton's Grace in December, both over (or close to) this distance. She campaigned on the Flat over the summer, regularly running over two miles, which usually means a horse is good for further over jumps. I gather this was a planned move to get her to relax more in her races and stay better. She still throws her head around a bit when restrained, but that seems to be more of a trait than one wasting a lot of energy. The Hatton's Grace fall looked to be clumsy more than anything, she was moving into the race nicely at the time. I think the jury is still out on the stamina issue, she's entitled to be a price with that doubt against her but I'd be a backer at double figures.
Epatante - the Champion Hurdle winner of 2020 who, as a 9yo, is naturally a few lengths slower than at her peak, but is still in fine form. Beaten in the last two Champion Hurdles by Honeysuckle, she then went to Aintree last year claiming the G1 Hurdle in fine style, before going down narrowly (1.75L) to Marie's Rock at Punchestown in the Mares Champion Hurdle. This season has been about chasing Constitution Hill in Grade 1s, we'll see the value of that and how it compares to the next horse against State Man earlier on today's card. Don't underestimate.
Honeysuckle - the queen of National Hunt racing whose unbeaten record has taken a hit in her last two starts, and this will be her swansong. After 16 victories, she tasted defeat for the first time in the Hatton's Grace - but rated as highly as she did winning last season's Champion Hurdle. Then she went to the Irish Champion Hurdle and went down again to State Man, but her RPR dropped away that time. What does she have left? Is she in genuine decline or have circumstances played against her? The Irish Champion was back to two miles, perhaps she needs a bit further as her pace edge fades later in her career. The word is out that Rachael Blackmore is likely to retire this season as well - what a story it would be to top off their careers if they could win this.
Love Envoi - winner of seven from eight, only losing to Brandy Love in the G1 Mares Novice at Fairyhouse last season. Harry Fry has mostly kept her away from the elite races so far, claiming several Grade 2/Class 1/Class 2 races along the way. Quite shrewd and certainly adds to her broodmare value. Now it's the big test. She won the Dawn Run here last year, a G2 Mares Novice, and needs to take a significant step forward, which isn't completely out of the question to win here.
Marie's Rock - the will she/won't she debate has been resolved with the Middleham Park-owned mare pointed at this contest rather than the Stayers Hurdle. She won this race last year
(SP 18/1) but based on this hot field, she will need to be significantly better to repeat the achievement. But improve she has, moving up 13lbs on official ratings since she took to the course that day, most recently comfortably winning the Relkeel here on New Years' Day, staying on strongly up the hill. That finishing speed at the end of a tough race is eye-catching, it's no wonder she is likely to start favourite.
Queens Brook - ran second to Marie's Rock here last year but wobbled about a bit under pressure and
couldn't keep up with the winner in the final stages - albeit the winner looked exceptional climbing the hill. Since then though, her rating has been largely flat, rising just 3lbs vs 13 for the favourite. The stable seem to know her limitations and thus it's hard to be fond of her in a much steeper challenge this year.
Shewearsitwell - the outsider of the Mullins trio, a handy mare but her record is, put simply, 'win or bust'. Five wins and no placings from 10 starts. Beaten comfortably behind the fav and Epatante in the Mares Champion Hurdle at Punchestown, while she has won her last two starts in lesser company, there's no reason to suggest she'll get any closer here.
Theatre Glory - nice mare who will build a nice page picking up G3 and Listed races but she's a long way off these.
This is a cracking contest, let's hope all of them run up to their best and we see a classic race. I can't get past Marie's Rock up that hill, I hope Honeysuckle goes out on a high but I have my doubts, while Echoes In Rain and Epatante should be right amongst it.
MARIE'S ROCK, Epatante, Echoes In Rain. Bets according to price - would need 3/1, 8/1, 12/1 respectively or I'll (try to) stay out.
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