Heading into the New Year we have now reached the half way stage of the current National Hunt season, but what have we learned so far regarding the season’s big championship events at the Cheltenham Festival? Whilst in some cases the status quo has been maintained, it has been all change elsewhere. Here we take a closer look at the four showpiece contests.
Champion Hurdle: Buveur’s Air Of Invincibility Broken?
Buveur D’air had proven too good for the rest in this race in both 2017 and 2018, and the early evidence from the current season suggested he would be mightily tough to stop once again in the 2019 Champion Hurdle. Having smashed Samcro to the tune of eight lengths in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, the Nicky Henderson trained star headed into the Christmas Hurdle for his next assignment. Sent off the 1/4 favourite, he could however manage only second to stablemate Verdana Blue as his unbeaten nine race streak over hurdles was finally broken. In fairness to the horse he wasn’t helped by a juddering error at the third last remains the 6/4 favourite for the race with Coral.
That defeat will of course give the challengers lying in wait renewed hope, and whilst Verdana Blue will only take her place in the line-up should the ground ride quick on the day, there are no shortage of others willing to have a crack at the defending champ. The Willie Mullins trained Laurina is in to second favourite for the race at 5/1 with BetVictor but is yet to be seen at the track this season.
Of those who have made their return, the clear standout is the fellow Mullins runner, Sharjah. A highly promising juvenile, he was hindered by soft ground for the majority of his efforts last season but has really shown what he can do this term. Much like Buveur D’air he is suited by being held up before using his brutal turn of foot to put things to bed in the closing stages. That tactic has worked a treat in both the Morgiana Hurdle and Ryanair Hurdle already this term and he’s now into 10/1 with Ladbrokes for the biggest hurdle of them all.
Queen Mother Champion Chase: Any Challengers To Altior?
Whereas Buveur D’Air has experienced a bump in the road ahead of the defence of his Cheltenham crown, there have been no such mishaps for his stablemate and reigning Champion Chaser, Altior, who continues to look to be in a class all of his own. Brilliant in seeing off Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown, he then barely came out of second gear to score by 19 lengths in the Desert Orchid Chase at Sandown. He looks the best in the business by some margin and it will take a good one to get near him back at Cheltenham in March in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The compilers understandably aren’t taking any chances, with the 1/2 on offer at Betfair being just about the best price available.
Altior’s price has a lot to do with his ability but is also in no small part down to a lack of credible opposition. Arkle champ Footpad (9/1 with Betfair) has fluffed his lines twice now in falling on his seasonal return before being beaten by the eleven year old Simply Ned last time out, whilst Un De Sceaux (20/1 with Ladbrokes) is solid but not as good as he was. That really leaves Min (12/1 with Coral) as the only conceivable threat, and whilst he did the job nicely on his comeback in a Grade 1 at Punchestown, he has faced Altior twice now and been beaten by seven lengths on each occasion.
Stayers’ Hurdle: Paisley Park The Prestbury Park Champ?
The Willie Mullins trained Penhill (7/1 with Betfair) is a non-mover at the head of the Stayers’ Hurdle market. Arriving fresh at the Festival has worked the oracle in the past two seasons and Mullins seems to be adopting the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” approach with this one. It seems likely the next time we see him will be when he lines up on the big day at Prestbury Park.
Of the newcomers to the scene the one to have impressed us most is the Emma Lavelle trained, Paisley Park. A perfect three from three this season, he showed he has what it takes to score at this level when staying on powerfully to land the JLT Hurdle last time out at Ascot and appears to be a horse firmly on the up. Ladbrokes make him a 12/1 shot for the big one on the back of that success.
Cheltenham Gold Cup: All Change Ahead Of The Main Event
Perhaps the race to have seen the biggest ante-post shakeup over the first half of the season is the biggest one of them all: the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
Of the established order the one to have remained solid at the head of the betting is the defending champion Native River. There’s been nothing wrong with his second in the Betfair Chase and third in the King George, particularly considering he needs a stiffer test than either of those races offers and he looks solid to go well at 5/1 with BetVictor.
There are however a couple of new stars on the scene. First up is the Paul Nicholls trained winner of the King George, Clan Des Obeaux. The way this one travelled, oh so smoothly, into that contest brought back memories of Nicholls trained legends of years gone by. That effort was a huge career best suggesting strongly that this seven year old son of Kapgarde is still improving and he rates a threat to all at 10/1 with Betfair.
The second newcomer to have thrown his hat into the ring is Kemboy from the yard of Willie Mullins. Rounding off last season with back to back wins in Novice contests, he looked a horse to look forward to ahead of the current campaign, but has likely exceeded even his trainers expectations in his two runs to date. Too good for the field on his comeback in a Grade 2 over 2m4f at Clonmel, he was then mightily impressive when slamming a grade 1 field by 7½l in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown. That level of form puts him firmly in the Gold Cup picture, with Betfair going 8/1 about the seven year old.
The big drifter in this year’s field is 2018 runner up, Might Bite, who has disappointed badly twice this season now and is out to 16/1 with Ladbrokes.
Current favourite – and beginning to look a pretty solid favourite at that – is last seasons hugely impressive RSA Chase winner, Presenting Percy. He hasn’t been seen yet at the track this season, but if returning in anything like the same form as last season he looks sure to be involved at 9/2 with Betfair.
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