2020 Cheltenham Festival Preview: Tuesday, Champion Day
By Alastair Akers
Tuesday of the Cheltenham Festival is every racing fan’s dream: the Cheltenham roar heralding the start of a day that includes four, yes four, Grade 1 races. More than in any normal year, the ground will play a huge part in how Tuesday plays out, because conditions are likely to affect the destination of several key horses in all four of those Grade 1 races.
No race will be more affected by whether Tuesday brings soft or good ground than the Champion Hurdle: it certainly looks the most unpredictable race of the day, and possibly of the whole Festival. As the ante-post favourites have fallen by the wayside through the season due to ill health (Buveur d’Air, Saldier) or inexplicably poor form (Klassical Dream, Sharjah), the classiest remaining candidates are three talented mares, none of whom can be backed with much confidence.
Benie Des Dieux would be the highest rated horse in the race were she to take part. She is far more likely, indeed almost certain, to head to the Mares' Hurdle later in the day, for which she would be deserved favourite. Since she joined Willie Mullins in late 2016, she has won eight of her nine starts, the exception being her shocking final fence fall in the Mares’ Hurdle last year with the field beaten. Having said that, if soft ground did tempt connections to run her in the Champion, she is more of a stayer than a speedster, and could be vulnerable to a rival’s turn of foot. Over the longer 20 furlongs of the Mares’ Hurdle, she would be hard to beat.
Fellow Irish mare Honeysuckle would perhaps have been more suited to this soft-ground two-mile test with a stiff finish, having shown a good mixture of stamina and speed in the course of her seven consecutive career victories however it's now been confirmed that she will head to the Mares' Hurdle. She has also shown real tenacity, particularly on her last run when she rallied after a final hurdle error to see off Darver Star at the Dublin Racing Festival. Ridden by a top female rider, Rachael Blackmore, her owners have invested in the sport precisely in order to boost the mares’ breeding programme, and promote the mares’ races as part of that agenda so the decision is an understandable one.
Meanwhile, Nicky Henderson’s classy Epatante will take her chance in the Champion Hurdle, and no wonder after she comfortably dispatched the best of the British opposition in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Like many of Henderson’s top-quality hurdlers, Epatante’s weapon is her finishing kick, and she possesses a quicker top speed than any other horse in this seemingly mediocre field. However, there are two big questions for her to answer: would soft ground blunt that speed, and more importantly, does she in fact not agree with the Cheltenham track? The latter concern relates to her lacklustre showing in last season’s Mares’ Novices Hurdle at Prestbury Park, when she went off a well-backed favourite and tailed off in ninth place in what has since proven to be a weak renewal. Her trainer attributed that dreadful run to a late flu jab (required due to last year’s equine flu scare, a charmingly sedate ‘scare’ given this year’s backdrop to the festival, incidentally) and your view on that will dictate your view of her appeal this year at a short price; not to mention recent reports that she's been found coughing. For many bettors at Cheltenham, it’s once bitten, twice shy.
In short, the Champion Hurdle is a real riddle due to an unusual lack of quality, whereas in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the Arkle Novices' Chase the open state of the markets stems from an abundance of top-class contenders with proven form.
The Supreme will also revolve around a will-he, won’t-he-run saga in the shape of Envoi Allen. Trainer Gordon Elliott has routed his unbeaten star towards the longer Ballymore all season, but very soft ground could bring the two-mile Supreme into consideration. However, that scenario is unlikely for the simple reason that Elliott already has another excellent chance in the Supreme in the form of Abacadabras – and yes, that is how you spell it. The six-year-old has been magical on the track so far this season, seeing off every Irish rival bar Envoi Allen over two miles, and will arrive at Cheltenham fresh following a break since Christmas. The better the ground, the better this speedy horse will run.
He’s not the only likely Irish winner, however, because of course Mullins has unearthed another top class novice hurdler. Asterion Forlonge couldn’t be much different to Abacadabras, winning his races by setting a furious gallop and then staying the course. As such, the Cheltenham track could play to his strengths if he is in position at the top of the hill, especially on slow ground.
Spearheading the English charge, as usual, is Henderson. His main chance is Shishkin, compared to none other than the mighty Altior after his last win at Huntingdon due to his turbo-charged final furlong. Shishkin looks like the most talented horse in the race, but he is inexperienced for a Supreme winner, with just two completed runs over hurdles, and that could prove his undoing in the hurly-burly of the first race of the Festival. Bettors should always bear in mind that these young horses don’t just have their rivals to contend with, but also the enormity of the occasion.
That certainly needs to be a consideration in the Arkle. Notebook is the right favourite, a magnificent and natural jumper with strong form, no tactical weaknesses, and a terrific jockey. But he gets noticeably over-excited before his races, and ahead of his last race in front of a big crowd at the Dublin Racing Festival, it took Blackmore a long time to calm him down. If you can, watch the preliminaries before deciding on your Arkle bet: if Notebook is under control, he ought to win.
If he has expended far too much energy on the way to the start, there is no shortage of good chasers who can take advantage. It makes logical sense to focus on the leading English players – with Notebook having already vanquished the Irish challenge – and they are led by Brewinupastorm and Rouge Vif. The latter recorded the best two-mile run in Britain this season at Warwick last time out, while the former beat some smart rivals when not fully tuned-up at Carlisle in October and ran well at the Festival 12 months ago.
This is the most open first day of the Cheltenham Festival for many years, and it’s possible to make cases for far more horses even than those mentioned here. Winners might be hard to find – but they’ll be at good prices, and that’s a very fair deal.