With the antepost markets heating up and a number of races already having passed the early entries stage, I take a look at four races, one from each day of the Festival, and pick out some horses potentially representing some value.
The excitement is building with just over two months until the action kicks off at Prestbury Park and, with many short priced favourites already being referred to as ‘bankers’ and included in multiple accumulators, is it too soon to be declaring some novices as winners already?
There is plenty of each-way value in markets that include well-fancied horses and there is usually an upset or two caused by runners who are yet to reach their peak form this season.
Here I analyse the chances of some alternative options who may be able to feature in their respective races.
TUESDAY: Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
The opening race of the Cheltenham Festival is the highly anticipated Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, in which plenty of punters’ fate will be at the mercy of Facile Vega.
The son of Walk In The Park and six-time Festival winner Quevega will either send the crowd wild or break the hearts of many an antepost bettor in the first event on the card. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding is as short as 8/11 (best priced at 5/6) in antepost markets, prior to the 24th of January entries release date.
Many people’s best bet of the week, Facile Vega is unbeaten in six runs to date, winning four bumpers, including two Grade One contests, as well as his first two starts over obstacles. He made light work of the opposition in his maiden win on debut over timber at Fairyhouse last month before his success in the Grade One Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown over the Christmas period.
His hurdling was good enough, without being completely fluent and slick, but his travelling speed and ability to lengthen away from the opposition was impressive. He beat stablemates Il Etait Temps and Ashroe Diamond (second and third respectively), without much exertion. That run will have given his Supreme backers plenty of faith, but could there be a rival in the field with a more effective turn of foot that may be needed to win the opener at the Festival?
Facile Vega has made all in both hurdling starts to date, winning comfortably enough without too many questions being asked of him. He has had it all his own way and it’ll be interesting to see how he’d fare if faced with a different challenge. The likelihood is he would be able to get himself out of trouble if given problems in-running, as he is well-bred and destined for big things as a potential superstar.
He is certainly the one to beat in the Supreme, but he may not be as solid a banker as many believe if some quality horses do line up against him, in favour of avoiding the race as not to face the formidable favourite.
Barring Facile Vega there is plenty of value if able to find a horse likely to line up in this race and not in one of the other, perhaps easier, novice hurdle contests. MARINE NATIONALE is currently second favourite in antepost markets and it’s easy to see why. Owner-trainer Barry Connell has stated that the Supreme is the main target for his stable star and, despite being prominent in the Ballymore market, he is likely to line up in this contest instead, making him a safe bet in this race, all being well.
A strong case can be made for the French Navy gelding, best priced at 6/1, as he appears to be the biggest threat to the odds-on favourite. He is also unbeaten, four from four under rules with a Grade One win to his name.
He tasted success in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse when last seen, rallying to narrowly beat Irish Point on soft ground. Champ Kiely was the well-thought of favourite that day, but wasn’t able to be competitive and weakened in the closing stages.
He had previously beaten the likes of Brazil and Hubrisko, as well as Listed-winner Plains Indian, with ease at Tipperary in his penultimate start. His stablemate Ashroe Diamond was amongst the places at Fairyhouse, finishing a four-and-a-quarter-length third. She is a mare with plenty of potential in top class races, especially against her own sex, and could be the best of the Irish contenders in the Mares Novices’ Hurdle come March.
The aforementioned Irish Point is an exciting prospect for Gordon Elliott’s yard and had first run on eventual winner Marine Nationale in their battle. He stayed on well at big odds, but didn’t have the speed to hold on at the line. The gelding is a potential contender for the Ballymore and is certainly a horse to follow as he progresses.
To overcome the favourite and cause an upset in the Supreme, Marine Nationale will need to hurdle with more fluency but could be able to use his turn of foot late on to good effect at Cheltenham. If Facile Vega does make the running, it will be intriguing to see whether or not Marine Nationale is able to stay with him. If he is in contention jumping the last, he could well be the only horse capable of overtaking the leader, given that the race does pan out that way. The way he quickened on ground with plenty of ease at Fairyhouse was mighty impressive, having also not hurdled the last with much elegance. He has won twice on good ground and could be a versatile type with more improvement to come.
Impaire Et Passe is one from Closutton that has thrown his hat firmly in the ring for a Cheltenham Festival success with a visually sublime performance at Naas on stable debut last month. He comfortably beat the field by eighteen-lengths in the hands of Paul Townend over 2m3f. The final two flights were bypassed at Naas and, with less of a focus on hurdling there, it may be worth seeing where he goes next and how he performs before backing him with any certainty for a particular race at Prestbury Park.
High Definition is in a similar category, having only been seen once over obstacles. He won over two-miles on soft ground at Leopardstown over the festive period. The colt is yet to be gelded and recently made the switch from Ballydoyle to Carriganóg Racing for Joseph O’Brien. Once antepost favourite for the 2021 Epsom Derby, the new recruit is a classy type with a wonderful pedigree.
His jumping left a bit to be desired on hurdling debut, but he has shown he has a good engine and will surely improve with more experience.
It’s likely he’ll line up at the Dublin Racing Festival prior to a trip over the Irish Sea in March and punters will find out more about him there. He may not line up in the Supreme, which makes him a risky bet at this moment in time, unless able to take advantage of the non-runner no bet markets. However, he is another to keep in mind for the Festival, perhaps more likely in the Ballymore or in the Albert Bartlett.
If he is to line up in the Supreme he may be found wanting in the closing stages if unable to clean up his jumping before then. If he was to make a number of mistakes over the flights at Cheltenham, it’s probable he’d struggle to stay near the likes of Facile Vega and Marine Nationale and would struggle to peg back the leaders coming up that hill.
Of the British-based potential runners, Jet Powered was the shortest price of the home guard before his disappointing run at Newbury on New Year’s Eve. Prior to that appearance he was seen winning his maiden in impressive fashion by eleven-lengths and was cut from 25/1 into as short as 6/1 for the Supreme. He now finds himself back out to as big as 33/1 with some firms and is perhaps unlikely to line up in the race. It may be worth forgiving his previous run on testing ground, as he wasn’t suited by the going. However, a potential Supreme winner would surely have put up a fight and not have wilted as tamely as he did, having won over course and distance just a month prior.
VERDICT: Facile Vega is the likeliest winner and the one to beat in the opening contest on the card at this year’s Cheltenham Festival. However, he is yet to be faced with a real challenge over timber, having made the running and had everything his own way in two starts over hurdles to date.
He may well win with ease, as we have seen in the past two renewals of the race won by both Constitution Hill and Appreciate It respectively. Facile Vega may get the meeting off to a flyer for Willie Mullins by becoming the first of many likely winners for the yard in the 2023 Festival.
But, there is definitely some value in the each-way market, even if the favourite proves to be unbeatable. Marine Nationale has shown tenacity to get himself out of trouble, plenty of speed and acceleration, and a good attitude. He is worthy of being in consideration ahead of the race, and there could be plenty more to come from him. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll show the improvement necessary to topple the short-priced favourite, but he is available at a tempting price and could well be good enough to cause an upset.
Supreme Novices’ Hurdle Antepost: Marine National 5/1 (most firms)
Wednesday: Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
Hermes Allen became the one to beat in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle with a convincing win in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at Newbury recently. The ground cut up badly at the track, as Hermes Allen drifted to a shade of odds-against to beat eleven rivals in the contest.
Despite only managing third in his only previous run on soft ground (in a point-to-point at Rathcannon), the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding was able to travel comfortably throughout the race and quicken effectively away from his tiring rivals in the closing stages.
He showed his versatility and ability to run in varied conditions and impressed plenty with the manner of which he disposed of his fellow contenders. He is also a course and distance winner, having won a competitive Grade Two at the track in November, beating rivals including Irish-raiders Music Drive and Hubrisko, as well as recent Cheltenham winner Weveallbeencaught, who looks a nice prospect for Nigel Twiston-Davies.
The closest market rival to Hermes Allen in current antepost markets is Facile Vega, who appears set to line up in Tuesday’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle rather than the Ballymore.
The betting suggests another Closutton representative could be the main contender for the race’s leading trainer Willie Mullins, recent maiden winner Gaelic Warrior. The gelding made an emphatic return to track at Tramore, recording an eighty-six-length win over his rivals, and is now as short as 4/1 to redeem himself at Cheltenham, following a narrow defeat to Brazil in last year’s Grade Three Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle (The Fred Winter) on stable debut.
Stablemates Grangeclare West and the aforementioned Impaire Et Passe are both potential contenders too, with the former of particular interest following a 2m4f maiden success over the useful Firm Footings at Navan earlier in the season.
The highly thought of American Mike was a well-beaten favourite in a Grade Three at Navan, only managing second behind Dawn Rising when sent off at odds of 2/7. Both horses are possible runners in the Ballymore, but more is needed from the runner-up who may well show improvement when next seen on track, potentially at the Dublin Racing Festival.
As mentioned in the Supreme preview, IRISH POINT was just held by Marine Nationale when last seen, putting in a gallant effort to finish second in Grade One company, following on from his comfortable maiden win at Cork in November.
He featured in the Grade One Novice Hurdle at Naas on Sunday, finishing second behind well-backed Champ Kiely, who made all in a strong front-running performance in the hands of Danny Mullins. There were a number of flights bypassed in the race however, which could have had a significant impact on the result, with Irish Point unable to peg back the leader on the long run in towards the line. Had the race been more of a jumping test, Irish Point could have been able to make up lengths on the eventual winner. Both horses have shown they’re strong stayers over the extra half-a-mile following their runs in the Royal Bond, but whilst Irish Point appears a perfect candidate for the Ballymore, Champ Kiely may perhaps be better suited to the Albert Bartlett.
With the Supreme run over a shorter, sharper trip, the opener on the second day of the Festival could be more suited to Joshua Tree gelding Irish Point, who showed he is just as capable over 2m4f as he is over 2m. He was able to be competitive at Naas and has seen his price shorten ever so slightly in the antepost betting market ahead of the Ballymore. Currently best priced at 14/1, as short as 7/1 in places, he is one for the shortlist.
VERDICT: Whilst Hermes Allen could be tough to beat given he has course form and has beaten a number of good horses with ease so far in his career, Irish Point is a capable alternative if he does line up in this contest in March.
He outran his odds at Fairyhouse last month when sent off at a surprising double figure price that didn’t seem to factor in the manner of which he won his maiden in similar conditions, with ease in the ground over two miles. Elliott’s gelding has run well on good to soft ground before and wouldn’t necessarily need a softer surface, although could be most effective on it. His run at Naas proved he is able to stay the extra distance that would be required to be competitive in the Ballymore.
It was a pleasing performance, especially considering the lack of emphasis on hurdling, and there could be more improvement to come from him. His price represents value in comparison with some other potential contenders and he is a likeable type, already having proven he is able to be competitive in Grade One company and surely it’s only a matter of time before he gets his head in front at the top level.
Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle Antepost: Irish Point 14/1 (best price available with most firms, 10/1, 7/1 in places)
Thursday: Stayers’ Hurdle (Grade 1)
The Stayers’ Hurdle market appears one of the most open Grade One contests of the week.
Flooring Porter will be bidding for three successive wins in the contest, whilst 2019 winner Paisley Park is likely to line up in an attempt to regain his crown. The former has seen his ante-post price drift significantly following a number of below-par runs. He has finished fourth in his last two appearances, beaten by both Home By The Lee and Ashdale Bob on both occasions. He was winless in three runs prior to his Cheltenham success last year however, and there’s plenty to suggest he’ll be primed and ready for another Stayers’ Hurdle prize.
Paisley Park is a difficult horse to predict. At his best he is capable of winning the top Graded contests over staying trips, but he often comes up short, or perhaps doesn’t give his true showing. At Cheltenham last January, in the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle, he lost a number of lengths at the start as he was slowly into stride, but kept going under the genius ride of Aidan Coleman, who knows the horse well, and won in exceptional fashion, beating Champ among others. He was off the bridle early when last seen in the Long Walk Hurdle, but again stayed on, proving himself to be every bit of the true stayer that has captured the hearts of many racing fans.
The aforementioned Home By The Lee has been a force to be reckoned with this season, showing great improvement for trainer Joseph O’Brien. He won the Lismullen Hurdle at odds of 28/1, beating short-priced favourite Bob Olinger, staying on well whilst quickening towards the line.
That win was no fluke as he followed it up with a Grade One success in the Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle, where he once again showed a great turn of foot to beat Ashdale Bob by three-lengths, with Flooring Porter in fourth and the lacklustre Bob Olinger a distance behind in fifth.
He has put himself firmly in contention for Cheltenham Festival success, but he isn’t yet proven at the English track and that may be a slight concern for some who prefer to back horses with previous course form. Last year he could only manage sixth in this contest, looking well beaten approaching the last, he couldn’t quicken with the pack and was left trailing. A year on he could show masses of improvement on his return to Prestbury Park and his two runs this season suggest he will do just that. But he will likely face much tougher opposition, including an expected better showing from Flooring Porter.
Champ, whilst being a classy type, is becoming increasingly difficult to back with any certainty. He won the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November, but was perhaps lucky to hold on as he did against a rallying Paisley Park who made up a lot of ground at the finish. His following run in the Long Walk Hurdle left a lot to be desired as he failed to quicken at all when asked, having made all and appearing to be travelling strongly with a few furlongs to run.
Champ is a strong stayer but often stays on at a one-paced speed, struggling to accelerate when others are challenging. If able to get an easy lead he is often difficult to peg back, especially when running against a horse such as Paisley Park, who often allows the horses in front to gain a massive advantage before attempting to peg them back. In this contest, there appears to be a number of horses likely to line up that have that much-needed ability to quicken when asked and that puts Champ at a huge disadvantage, which is reflected in his price.
Klassical Dream may be Willie Mullins’ only representative in the race, but will need plenty to go in his favour if he is to reign victorious in March. He won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle here in 2019, but didn’t stay last year having been keen early on in the race.
Over an extended 2m3f at Fairyhouse when last seen, he was only narrowly beaten by Teahupoo of Gordon Elliott’s, as the pair finished ahead of odds-on favourite Honeysuckle in a shock result. The step up in trip seems unlikely to suit Klassical Dream at Cheltenham against tough opponents, although it’s worth mentioning that he has won over 3m twice in the past.
TEAHUPOO is a horse of interest if there is some ease in the ground come the day of the race. He is yet to be tried over the trip, but his best days do seem ahead of him and he showed his class when winning the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle when last seen. It’s likely he’d prefer soft ground and perhaps a slightly shorter trip, but connections could opt to take a chance at this staying contest if there is any rain about. A slight ease in the ground could prove troublesome for others with an electric turn of foot and Teahupoo could be staying on well enough to earn himself a placed finish or better.
Charles Byrnes’ Blazing Khal is as short as 6/1 in the antepost market despite missing a full year of racing in 2022 due to injury. He is set to make his return to track soon, but isn’t guaranteed to be fit enough for the Cheltenham Festival. The gelding is unbeaten in three runs over hurdles, including twice at Cheltenham. His course form is a big positive point, especially considering he won comfortably over the trip when last seen.
The previously mentioned Ashdale Bob is a lively contender for Jessica Harrington. He consistently runs well in Graded affairs, often at decent each-way prices. It’s likely he could find one or two better once again, but there are worse options and he is a reliable selection for the places as he usually runs his race and gives a good account of himself.
VERDICT: At this stage in the season Home By The Lee and Flooring Porter appear the pair to beat, with the former showing plenty of promise and the latter being a proven horse over course and distance in this race. However, if there is rainfall prior to the off on the Thursday of the Festival, Teahupoo will almost certainly come into play and he may be worth taking a chance on in the non-runner no bet markets.
He has done something that no horse has done before, won a race in which Honeysuckle has featured, and he is an improving type capable of showing plenty of further progression. If this year’s contest comes too early for him in his career, or conditions are not to suit the gelding, he is definitely one to watch in future as a potential star in the hurdling division, given he stays over the smaller obstacles rather than revert to fences.
Stayers’ Hurdle Antepost: Teahupoo 12/1 (best price available, 10/1 in places – 10/1 best price NRNB)
Friday: Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1)
Lossiemouth announced herself to Irish crowds emphatically and with great vigour on debut for Willie Mullins in a Grade Three at Fairyhouse last month.
She made light work of her opposition that included short-priced favourite, her stablemate, Zarak The Brave (in second) as well as Joseph O’Brien’s Comfort Zone who then went on to win a Grade Two contest at Chepstow.
The runner up performed slightly under par having been caught in a pocket around the home bend before jockey Paul Townend switched to the inside for a clear run in. Zarak The Brave wasn’t fluent over the final two hurdles, allowing Lossiemouth to get first run on him and unable to show the speed required to peg her back. The young filly, a new recruit from Yannick Fouin’s yard in France, quickened impressively, extending away from her rivals as they approached the final flight, hurdling well and putting plenty of lengths between herself and the field coming towards the line.
Her following run came in a Grade Two at Leopardstown over the festive period, in which she was arguably even more impressive, winning by seven-and-a-half-lengths to stablemate Gala Marceau and beating promising colt Nusret by over sixteen-lengths.
Gala Marceau is currently second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, best priced at 10/1, closely matched with Gary Moore’s Jupiter Du Gite, who is now as short as 8/1 following a dominant performance in rain-softened ground at Newbury on Saturday.
It’s worth noting he carried 10st 3lbs to victory, putting fifteen-lengths between himself and second-placed Klitschko who gave 18lbs to the eventual winner. Jupiter Du Gite was sent off at odds of 66/1 on yard debut, ridden by 3lbs claimer Niall Houlihan.
Nicky Henderson’s Supreme hope Jet Powered was the odds-on favourite at 2/7, carrying a hefty 11st 12lbs but unable to land a blow in undesired conditions. The victor was breathtaking, striding clear with ease on testing ground that appeared to suit the 104,000 euros purchase. He may be suited to further, as stamina certainly played a part in this race. It remains to be seen how he’ll fare on better ground and he is perhaps worth keeping in mind in future races.
A horse appearing to represent some value in the antepost market ahead of the initial entry stage is Milton Harris’ SCRIPTWRITER. He has already tasted success at Cheltenham, winning over a trip just shy of 2m1f at the November Meeting.
Originally based with Aidan O’Brien at Ballydoyle, by Churchill out of a Pivotal mare, Scriptwriter made an underwhelming start to his racing career, finishing sixth in a maiden at the Curragh, with Comfort Zone behind in ninth. He featured in the Group Three Autumn Stakes at Newmarket in his two-year-old season, finishing fifth behind the talented winner Coroebus who went on to win the 2000 Guineas and St James’s Palace Stakes. On the flat he showed fair ability, but wasn’t cut out for Group level. He did manage to stay on well on a few occasions, having been off the bridle early on in a number of races. This bodes well for his stamina and he has already shown he is able to travel well over further in the National Hunt discipline.
Prior to his run at Cheltenham, he made his hurdling debut at Sedgefield under Paddy Brennan, wandering around in the closing stages but showing a good burst of speed to accelerate away from the long-time leader My Brother Jack. He is perhaps still learning on the job but he’s showing plenty of potential and his trainer has been speaking highly of him since bringing him to the yard, suggesting that he is better than Grade One winner and three time Grade Two winner, Knight Salute, who represents the same connections. Knight Salute was unable to show his true ability in last year’s Triumph Hurdle, won by Vauban, but did dead-heat with Pied Piper at Aintree, following a stewards’ inquiry.
Another Gary Moore runner who could line up is Perseus Way who chased home Scriptwriter at Cheltenham. He has already placed in two Graded races and is a horse that could show more ability in the future. On his second start he easily won his maiden at Leicester, recording a twenty-four-length victory before putting in a respectable effort at Chepstow, finishing third behind the aforementioned Comfort Zone, with plenty going against him during the race. At the moment he is a big price for the Triumph Hurdle and much shorter for other races, so may perhaps skip this in favour of going down the handicap route.
VERDICT: Whilst Lossiemouth is a well-fancied favourite at this stage of the season and will be incredibly tough to beat if running to her potential, Scriptwriter is available at a big price and, with previous course form, should run to the level required to be competitive. He is improving with each run and showed his versatility and wellness with success at Wolverhampton over 1m4f recently. There could be plenty of further progression to come from him and he has class. With the current favourite being so short and having already beaten others who are prominent towards the head of the market, Scriptwriter does appear slightly unexposed in comparison and is one to consider.
Triumph Hurdle Antepost: Scriptwriter 16/1 (most firms)
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