NOTABLE ABSENTEES FAIL TO DIM ENTHUSIASM FOR CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL

Willie Mullins, once the lead- ing amateur jockey, now the leading National Hunt Train- er in Ireland; Gordon Elliott, once a decent amateur jock- ey himself, now challenging Willie 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 Mullins and Elliott, which has lit up the NH train- er’ championship in Ireland this season, will move across the water next week, as Elliott attempts to dislodge Mullins from his perch at the top of the Cheltenham trainers tree. Mul- lins has been champion trainer at the festival for the last four seasons, but the loss of some of his best horses through in- jury, and the departure of the Gigginstown Stud horses from his stables last autumn, has left him looking a little vulner- able, both at home and abroad. Understated in all his public comments, Mullins’ quiet ex- terior masks a fierce competi- tor, and 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. Both men have the height of respect for each other, and constantly downplay their prospects, but deep down..... next week is very important for both men. 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 OF 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 lead- ing trainer award in the UK for the first time in five years?

NEW CHAMPIONS

All the cliches of ‘Hamlet without the prince’ ring true with the absence of such stal- warts as Thistlecrack, Don Cossack, Coneygree, Faugheen, Annie Power, Vautour, Valseur Lido, Min and many others. However, at 1.30pm. next Tues- day, March 14th, the tapes will go up and the crowd will cheer, and the focus will move from absent friends to new champi- ons.

At the time of writing, a number of final decisions have still to BE made regarding the specific races certain horses will contest. However, there are no question marks over a num- ber of next week’s bankers, and

at such short odds an accumu- lator bet is advised on Altior (Tue ), Neon Wolf (Wed ), Dou- van (Wed ) and Yorkhill (Thu ).

Tuesday’s opening race, the Supreme Novices Hurdle, looks a far more open affair than re- cent years and an each way bet on Ballyandy or Movewiththe- times is recommended at this stage.

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 an- other wide open affair, and at this stage 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 em- ulate Annie Power’s feat of last season.

The selected of Willie Mul- lins 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 Broth- ers Handicap Chase, so if train-

ers 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 highlight, The 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 all multiple bets. I fancy Fox Norton and Gods Own to chase him home.

Two other favourites expect- ed to run well on Wednesday are Neon Wolf in the Neptune Investment Management Nov- ices Hurdle and Cantlow in The Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase.

The RSA chase may deliver an emotional win for the San- dra 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 Yorkh-

ill will be all the rage here. The 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, first and second at Chepstow last week, look sure to run well in The Pertemps Network Fi- nal, though Presenting Percy cannot be ruled out, in spite of his harsh treatment at the hands of the British handicap- per.

RYANAIR FOR O’LEARY?

Empire of Dirt will attempt to go one better for Giggins- town in the Ryanair Chase than Valseur Lido last year, 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 favour- ites. Uknowwhatimeanharry is trading at very low odds for The Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle, and should continue his win- ning streak. At the prices, bet- ter each way value may lie with the 2015 winner, Cole Harden. Diamond King and Mall Dini appeal as other each way prop- ositions in Thursday’s remain- ing 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 at this stage, 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 don’t rule out a surprise with the likes of Sizing John and Cham- pagne 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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