Notable absentees fail to dampen enthusiasm for Cheltenham Festival

Douvan will return to this year’s festival seeking his third win in three outings. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Douvan will return to this year’s festival seeking his third win in three outings. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Willie Mullins, once the leading amateur jockey, now the leading national hunt trainer in Ireland; Gordon Elliott, once a decent amateur jockey himself, now challenging Mullins’ domination of the Irish NH racing scene; the Cheltenham Festival, once the mecca for NH racing fans from Ireland and the UK, always the mecca for NH racing fans from Ireland and the UK.

The intense competition between Elliott and Mullins will move across the water next week, as the former attempts to dislodge the latter from his perch at the top of the Cheltenham trainers tree. Mullins has been champion trainer at the festival for the last four seasons, but the loss of some of his best horses through injury and the departure of the Gigginstown Stud horses from his stables has left him looking a little vulnerable, both at home and abroad.

Mullins’ quiet exterior masks a fierce competitor. Elliott knows he has a battle on his hands to secure his first trainer’s championship at home, and in his attempt to wrestle Mullins’ Cheltenham crown over the coming week.

If Mullins secures a fifth consecutive trainers title at the festival, in view of all his travails this season, it will go down as one his greatest achievements. If Elliott secures his first, we could be looking at the dawn of a new era. Or will Nicky Henderson spoil the Irish party and keep the leading trainer award in the UK for the first time in five years?

New champions

At the time of writing, a number of final decisions have still to be made regarding the specific races horses will contest. However, there are no question marks over a number of next week’s bankers, and at such short odds an accumulator bet is advised on Altior (Tue ), Neon Wolf (Wed ), Douvan (Wed ) and Yorkhill (Thu ).

Tuesday’s opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, looks a far more open affair than recent years. An each way bet on Ballyandy or Movewiththetimes is recommended.

In the second race of the meeting, the Ultima Handicap Chase, Saphir Du Rheu appeals each way at odds of 16/1.

The Champion Hurdle is another open affair. I expect the finish will be fought out between the J.P. McManus pair of Buveur D’Air and Yanworth. If Limini is redirected to this race, she is sure to give a good account, but it is difficult to see her emulate Annie Power’s feat of last season.

The selected of the Willie Mullins stable should win the Olbg Mares Hurdle, and, assuming Limini takes the Champion route, that should be Vroom Vroom Mag.

The four mile NH Chase could be dominated by those highest in the betting, with a slight preference for Edwulf over A Genie in A Bottle and Champers on Ice.

Nigel Twiston Davies has been very sweet on Foxtail Hill for a long time for Tuesday’s closing race, the Close Brothers Handicap Chase, so if trainers’ tips are your thing, then make sure to include this one. Paul Nicholls also fancies his Romain De Senam in the same contest.

Douvan unbeatable

Wednesday’s Betway Champion Chase sees Douvan return to the festival seeking his third win in three outings. Almost unbeatable, at present odds he is also almost unbackable, but do include him in multiple bets. I fancy Fox Norton and Gods Own to chase him home.

Two other favourites expected to run well on Wednesday are Neon Wolf in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle and Cantlow in The Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.

The RSA chase may deliver an emotional win for the Sandra Hughes trained Acapella Bourgeois, with likely dangers including Might Bite and Alpha Des Obeaux.

It may pay to focus on Dreamcatching and Long Call in an open looking Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, as I expect Master Blueyes to be diverted to Friday’s Triumph Hurdle.

Thursday opens with the JLT Novices Chase, and Yorkhill will be all the rage here. That main dangers are Disko and Politologue, but the favourite should get punters off to a good start if he has sorted out his jumping problems.

Gayebury and Jury Duty look sure to run well in The Pertemps Network Final, though Presenting Percy cannot be ruled out, in spite of his harsh treatment at the hands of the British handicapper.

Ryanair for O’Leary?

Empire of Dirt will attempt to go one better than Valseur Lido’s second place last year for Gigginstown in the Ryanair Chase, but will have his work cut out against Un De Sceaux and Uxizandre. Stick with Un De Sceaux as one of the more attractively priced Mullins trained favourites.

Uknowwhatimeanharry is trading at very low odds for The Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle and should continue his winning streak. At the prices, better each way value may lie with the 2015 winner, Cole Harden. Diamond King and Mall Dini appeal as other each way propositions in Thursday’s remaining handicaps.

Defi Du Seuil is a best priced 2/1 for Friday’s opening race, The JCB Triumph Hurdle, and will be hard to beat. If funds are running low and you need a bit more value, look no further than Mister Blueyes at a tasty 8/1 for an each-way saver. Wholestone will put it up to hotpot Death Duty in The Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle.

The Timico Gold Cup has the shape of a race that may throw up a surprise result. For those at the top of the market, Cue Card looks the one most likely to give his running, but do not rule out a surprise with the likes of Sizing John and Champagne West capable of getting into the shakeup.

If On The Fringe does not ‘get you out’ in The Foxhunters, have a little each way on The Storyteller or Brio Conti in The Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle, and Dandridge in The Grand Annual Handicap Chase.

Oh, and yes, Willie Mullins will be crowned champion trainer at the festival for the fifth consecutive year. There will be no records set though, four or five winners should be enough to see him home.

Bet of the week: Treble - Neon Wolf, Altior and Douvan at 6/1.

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