We are now just a fortnight away from the most important National Hunt meeting in the calendar and excitement among punters is palpable. They will join celebrities and royals in descending upon the west of England for the Cheltenham Festival and it promises to be another exhilarating meeting. It begins with Champion Day on Tuesday, March 13, when fans can look forward to no fewer than four Grade 1 races. Considering there are only 40 during the entire season, to have a tenth of them clustered on just one day ensures that Champion Day is a revered event.
Last year we witnessed a fascinating Day One as The Greatest Show on Earth returned with a bang, packed full of drama and intrigue, heroes and villains. Nicky Henderson’s Buveur d’Air beat stablemate My Tent Or Yours to win the feature race of the day, the Champion Hurdle. That gave owner JP McManus a record 50th win at the Festival, and vindicated Henderson’s insistence on switching Buveur d’Air back to smaller obstacles. It was also a glorious day for Irish trainer Gordon Elliott, who won three of the seven races that take place on Champions Day.
Elliott landed the first race of the meeting, the Grade 1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, through 25/1 shot Labaik. He doubled up when Apple’s Jade claimed the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle and then saw Tiger Roll win the JT McNamara National Hunt Chase at 16/1.
Elliott was named leading trainer at last year’s March Festival. He and Irish rival Willie Mullins both claimed six winners, but Elliott enjoyed more places and ended Mullins’ four-year winning streak. Their supremacy ensured Ireland also secured a record Prestbury Cup win over Great Britain.
This year, Mullins, Henderson and Elliott are the three frontrunners in the betting lines to be named leading trainer, and each man will be desperate to get off to a strong start on Day One. It should be another great day for Henderson as the seemingly invincible Buveur d’Air is the heavy favourite to win the Champion Hurdle once again. The French-born seven-year-old bay gelding extended his winning run to nine when he seized the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown on February 3. He is well in front in the betting to win the Champion Hurdle, and is widely expected to win it ahead of Faugheen, My Tent Or Yours and Yorkwell. Henderson also saddles the favourites in the Gold Cup and Queen Mother Champion Chase and his runners are sure to attract a lot of attention in the horse racing spread betting.
The other Grade 1 races on Champion Day are the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle Challenge Trophy and the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Apple’s Jade has been magnificent since her Cheltenham heroics last year, winning four out of four, including the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown last time out. She is the odds-on favourite to deliver more joy for Elliott in the Mares’ Hurdle, but must contend with Mullins’ Let’s Dance. Last year Altior won the Arkle for Henderson and he is now the favourite to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase this time around. Another Mullins charge, Footpad, heads the betting for this year’s Arkle after a strong Grade 1 win ahead of Petit Mouchoir at Leopardstown earlier this month.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle looks wide open once again, despite Getabird’s status as the heavy favourite, and it might be worth looking at some longer shots. Sharjah has attracted a lot of attention at 20/1, as has Claimantankinforgan at 16/1. Racegoers can also look forward to the Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase, another contest with a really open field and the possibility for plenty of interesting each-way shots. Presenting Percy is the favourite for the National Hunt Chase, but it might be worth taking a look at Mall Dini, a 16/1 shot who is taking plenty of action. The day closes with the Close Brothers Novice Handicap Chase, which also has no clear favourite and plenty of runners clustered around the 10/1 to 16/1 mark. McManus’ Movewiththetimes is an interesting 20/1 shot in this race.
Overall, it promises to be another spectacular day, replete with merriment, drama and magnificent hats. After a 12-month wait, it will be spine tingling to hear the Cheltenham Roar once again, and it will surely usher in another exciting Festival.