Michael Fortune marks your card for Day 1 of Cheltenham Festival
The startling aspect of the Stan James Champion Hurdle is that Willie Mullins has lost his first two favourites for the crown through injuries to the impeccable reigning champion Faugheen and last year’s runner-up Arctic Fire, but he still goes into the race with the two market leaders, Annie Power and Nichols Canyon.
The Annie Power story is the stuff of legend. The mare started out trained by flat legend Jim Bolger and with Patrick Mullins in the saddle in a Galway bumper. She won that race and went on to join Mullins.
Going into the Champion she has run 15 times and the only occasion she tasted defeat when finishing a race was in the World Hurdle two years ago, when she failed by a length-and-a-half to beat More Of That.
Her only other defeat came when she crumbled at the last in the Mares’ Hurdle with the race won. She bounced back to trot up at Punchestown, but has had to overcome slight training problems to make this meeting.
It was only when Faugheen became a non-runner that she became a likely entry and connections have had to supplement her. She trotted up in a Punchestown mares’ race last month and suddenly became a Champion possible. Such is her brilliance that she merits the vote to provide Mullins with his fourth Champion Hurdle success.
Nichols Canyon has a massive chance if we can ignore his disappointing run in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but that was an off-day following a series of high-class victories.
He is entitled to run a massive race and could well claim the gold medal.
Henry de Bromhead has a very lively contender in Identity Thief, which has improved out of all proportions and has won the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle as well as just losing out a great battle with Nichols Canyon at Leopardstown.
Forgetting his awful run in the Trial, The New One would have to be rated on last year’s performance and also with the ground likely to be much more suitable. However, he still has a fair bit to prove and it is difficult to overlook his terrible run when scraping home at Haydock from Rayvin Black.
1.30 Skybet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2m 1/2f)
2.10 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Steeple Chase (2m)
2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase (3m 1/2f)
3.30 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (2m 1/2f)
4.10 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (2m 4f)
4.50 National Hunt Novices Steeple Chase (4m)
5.30 Close Bros Novices’ Handicap Chase (2m 4 1/2 f)
The banker of the week could be the Mullins-trained Douvan in the Racing Post Arkle Chase. He occupied a similar role last year and came up trumps with a cantering victory in the Supreme Novice Hurdle.
He has never been off the bridle in seven races since arriving from France and his three outings over fences this year have resulted in victories by an aggregate 42.5 lengths.
Barring one slight mistake at the last fence at Leopardstown at Christmas, there hasn’t been a semblance of an error and he looks like a potential future Gold Cup winner.
Of the British runners, Vaniteux and Garde Le Victoire would rate as dangers, but I honestly feel that Henry de Bromhead’s Sizing John could be his closest pursuer.
However, Mullins may not be finished there on day one, as he also has the unbeaten Min in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, while he also has Vroum Vroum Mag, which looks nailed on for the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle – not to mention a strong team in the National Hunt Chase.
Michael's top tips:
1.30 – 1 MIN; 2 Altior
2.10 – 1 DOUVAN; 2 Sizing John, 3 Vaniteux
2.50 – 1 ALOOMOMO; 2 Morning Assembly, Theatre Guide
3.30 – 1 ANNIE POWER; 2 Nichols Canyon, 3 The New One
4.10 – 1 VROUM VROUM MAG; 2 The Govaness, 3 Bitofapuzzle
4.50 – 1 PONT ALEXANDRE; 2 Minella Rocco, 3 Noble Endeavour
5.30 – 1 BOUVREUIL; 2 McKinley, 3 Killer Crow
3.30 Annie Power
4.10 Vroum Vroum Mag