THE STAGE IS SET! OUR CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL ANTEPOST BUILD UP IS HERE!

The greatest week of the year believed by many a race goer gets under way in just over a week, and to wet your appetite just that little bit more, here at Picks From The Paddock we’re going to take you through the main protagonists in the four big ones. Every trainer, owner and jockey concentrates their efforts around this one week of the year, where for many victory is just a dream. But for others it’s waiting to happen, it will happen, where for the elite and blessed the winners enclosure will be a common sight.
The palpitations from the roar signal that the feast is under way. The Supreme is the perfect appetiser for the main meal – The Champion Hurdle. Since his victory in last years Neptune, Faugheen has been the talk of the town, but for many his ‘evens’ tag of favouritism is just way too short. Although he is unbeaten in eight starts under rules, and has looked a class apart from every horse he has ever raced against, throwing in some bloodless victories en route, some are questioning what he’s come home in front of. Could this be the reason why up to now Ruby Walsh has failed to decide, or even hint, whether he will be on board the young pretender, or his old faithful, and winner of no less than twenty two Grade 1’s, Hurricane Fly.

You can’t underestimate what this horse has achieved, and at the ripe old age of 11, he shows no signs of giving up. But in his older years is he beginning to find the Cheltenham hill just that little bit too tough? Whichever way Ruby decides to vote, which incidentally I think will be Faugheen, Paul Townend will come in for the best spare ride around.

Last years winner Jezki has been beaten by Hurricane Fly three times, although there hasn’t been much between them. Regaining the Champion Hurdle crown has always been the aim for him however, and with the season built around this day, I doubt we’ve seen him at his best yet this season.

Like Faugheen, The New One was an impressive winner of the Neptune as a novice and has since established himself into the best of the Brits coming into this race. No-one will forget how his chance was compromised by the third flight fall of the ill-fated Our Conor in last years race, where he would sure have gone closer than finishing a close third after storming up the hill under a galvanised Sam Twiston-Davies. Heavier ground last time out in Haydock’s trial for this race was surely to blame for his lack lustre run and a sounder surface along with a high pace tempo is sure to suit.

The teams Champion Hurdle bets:

Chris Connolly – Jezki (E/W)

Chris Roke – The New One (WIN)

David Smith – Faugheen (WIN)

David Weldon – Jezki (WIN)

Dean Kilbryde – Faugheen (WIN)

Ed Leahy – Jezki (E/W)

Rory Paddock – Faugheen (WIN)

Onto Day 2, Queen Mother Champion Chase Day and for me my favourite day of the week. Much of this years build up to the race has been the what if’s of the two main contenders, Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy. Both have had their problems, which couldn’t be any more different but both have pleased connections in their build up since and should line up on the day.

According to Nicky Henderson Sprinter Sacre is “as good as he’s been in a very, very long time.” His comeback run was encouraging enough in defeat to Dodging Bullets, where Barry Geraghty nursed him home and took great care of The Aeroplane. He hadn’t run for well over a year, so after a long layoff the boy done good. If he’s back to his best, he won’t be beaten.

Last years champion Sire De Grugy was ruled out at the beginning of the season with a hip injury, and after unseating on his comeback at Newbury at the beginning of February he came home victorious at Chepstow a couple of weeks later. Since then trainer Gary Moore has said that Sire De Grugy is “buzzing” ahead of his defence. If he came home in front, I can’t imagine we’ll see or hear a better reception.

Dodging Bullets has thrown himself right in with the big boys and has showed his worth. He’s certainly the progressive horse in the field, and Paul Nicholls is having a storming season, so we know he’ll be on form. He would prefer softer ground here though and his spring form figures are disappointing.

Mr Mole is Nicholls’ other runner and he’s also very progressive. He’s a quirky sort who was thrown into the headlines after his victory at Newbuty, with AP McCoy announcing his end of season retirement after the race. He’s unbeaten this season and with AP in the saddle we’d all love to see the fairy-tale ending.

Course form is something that Champagne Fever has certainly got, and it’s something that is vital when it comes to Cheltenham. It took a while for connections to decide where the horse would go, but I think they’ve made the right decision. He didn’t quite stay in the King George and class got him to finish where he did. He had the prefect warm up last time out when an easy winner at Gowran and his form over the two miles must throw him right in the mix here. At the minute trainer Willie Mullins has a ridiculous 33% of the favourites in the ante-post market, 5 of which are on day one! An unbelievable thing, but the pressure must be immense.

The teams antepost Champion Chase bets:

Chris Connolly – Champagne Fever (E/W)

Chris Roke – Mr Mole (E/W)

David Smith – Don Cossack (E/W)

David Weldon – Hidden Cyclone (E/W)

Dean Kilbryde – Champagne Fever (E/W)

Ed Leahy – Champagne Fever (E/W)

Rory Paddock – Sire De Gurgy (WIN)

Day 3, and The World Hurdle comes to the fore. With last years champion More Of That recently ruled out, it’s looking to be a very open race. The two at the head of the market, Saphir Du Rheu and Zarkandar are trainer by Paul Nicholls, who reports that “both are in great spirits.” Stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies has opted to ride Saphir Du Rheu, and I would have as well. I think there’s lot to come from this horse and his Cleeve Hurdle win showed his potential. He showed a lot of courage here and beat a high class field. The revert back to hurdles this season has definitely been the best thing for him and I should go well here.

Zarkandar has been lightly raced this season, with only the two runs. One of which was a victory in France with the other in defeat to Reve De Sivola at Ascot back in December. He finished fourth in the race last year and will be fresh and ready for this. Noel Fehily is contracted to Zarkandar’s owners Potensis, so assuming he sticks to this the ride on Rock On Ruby comes up for grabs.

There were rumours that it could be AP who took the ride on the former Champion Hurdle winner but subsequently the champ has come out and said he’ll be riding At Fishers Cross. With no obvious ride for the horse it’ll be interesting to see who gets the leg up. Rock On Ruby is stepping into the unknown when it comes to the trip and was tried over fences last season which didn’t go to plan. He’s back in his comfort zone now and his hurdle record with a field of ten or over is 1,2,2,1,1 so he can’t be ignored.

If Annie Power doesn’t turn up here, the main Irish rival comes in the form of the Gigginstown owned Lieutenant Colonel. The late Dessie Hughes trained this horse until his sad passing and daughter Sandra has now taken over the licence so victory here would be an emotional triumph. Bryan Cooper is sure to take the ride and the pair have done little wrong in the build-up, improving on every outing. He’s gutsy and seems to find plenty under pressure, something that will be key coming up the Cheltenham hill. He could be the dark horse here.

The teams antepost World Hurdle bets:

Chris Connolly – Briar Hill (E/W)

Chris Roke – Annie Power (WIN)

David Smith – Annie Power (WIN) 

David Weldon – Lieutenant Colonel (E/W)

Ed Leahy – Annie Power (WIN)

Dean Kilbryde – Un Temps Pour Tout (E/W)

Rory Paddock – Un Temps Pour Tout (E/W)

The Gold Cup comes on the last day of the Festival and for many is the highlight of the week. Silviniaco Conti has been the ante-post favourite for the race for a while and if he can reproduce his King George run he’ll be hard to beat …providing he handles Cheltenham. His record there isn’t the most encouraging. Paul Nicholls has said that the horse is finishing his races better, is on form, and is probably the one to beat. There’s no denying that if he handles Cheltenham better than the past he sure will be the one to beat.

Many Clouds threw himself right into the mix after winning the Hennessy and his victory on Trials Day in the BetBright Chase showed his followers he could handle the Cheltenham course too. He stayed on so strongly in the Hennessy and gave it is all, which is something a Gold Cup winning horse has to give. The main concern here though is the ground – if anything better than soft is in the description he won’t be suited by it one bit.

Road To Riches has enhanced his Gold Cup chances no end this season with victory in the Lexus putting him in with a shout. He showed he stayed, and didn’t need to be ridden in front, so if On His Own turns up in the Gold Cup and sets up the same kind of pace as he did in the Lexus the race is sure to suit. There was a lot of classy horses behind him on that day, one of which being last years Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere who has had a very similar build up to the race as last year.

On His Own, Sam Winner and Boston Bob, who also finished behind, are all bigger prices for the race, but all have a great each way shout.

Winner of the Irish Hennessy Carlingford Lough showed his class in that race and it really would be the fairy-tale ending for AP if they were to come out best on Gold Cup day and it could well happen. Having AP in the saddle will certainly enhance his chance.

With McCoy opting for Carlingford Lough, Holywell’s ride was freed up, and so made way for Richie McLernon who has been confirmed to take the ride. This partnership have a great record, with victory at the Festival meeting for the last two years, beating Ma Filleule last season in a handicap chase. He hasn’t had the best build up to the race, but a win last time out did come as a relief to connections. McLernon certainly deserves the leg up and their record together could make the difference.

Nicky Henderson’s form has done former winner Bobs Worth no good. His lack lustre run when going off favourite in the Lexus is a worry but we know he’s got it in him and if he’s back to his best, he wouldn’t be a surprise winner.

Smad Place will be better suited by good ground and has some good Cheltenham form. He does always seems to be the bridesmaid in these big races though.

The softer the ground the more likely it will be that Coneygree goes for the Gold Cup. I’m a firm believer that a novice horse should stay in novice company and I really hope this will be the case here. I’d go RSA this season, with The Gold Cup the aim for every year after. I’m a huge fan of the horse, so here’s hoping!

Djakadam would need to improve to come into the reckoning here and I think the Gold Cup might be his race next year – it’s a big ask for a six year old. He’s lacking in experience really but his victory in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran more than merits his chance in the race. It’s an extremely open renewal where a handful of horses could come out in front.

The teams antepost Gold Cup bets:

Chris Connolly – Lord Windermere (E/W)

Chris Roke – Smad Place (E/W)

David Smith – Silviniaco Conti (E/W)

David Weldon – Road To Riches (E/W)

Dean Kilbryde – Silviniaco Conti (WIN)

Ed Leahy – Holywell (E/W)

Rory Paddock – Carlingford Lough (E/W)

Every year is an electrifying year and somehow it just keeps getting better. A lot of this years races are pretty wide open, making way for some big priced winners. Will Mullins be able to get five winners on the first day? What a feat it would be if this could happen …and it could. Could Carlingford Lough give AP the best possible outcome to his final Cheltenham Festival? Jockeys, trainers, owners and punters will be hoping to come out of the week on top but the most important thing is that everyone comes out of the week in one piece. So here’s hoping for a safe and successful trip for one and all.

The teams antepost picks:

TUESDAY:
13:30 – Supreme Novices Hurdle (Pundit: Chris Connolly)
Nicky Henderson’s yard have been in and out this term but there are a few exceptions and Cheltenham’s leading trainer can get off the mark with the first bullet he fires. L’Ami Serge is unbeaten in three British starts and has won by a combined total of 27 Lengths in the process, the form of them victories have received a couple of meaty boosts and at 4/1, he represents a fair bit of value. People may point out soft ground is a must for him but his action doesn’t suggest its a must and he is likely to improve either way.
L’Ami Serge (WIN) – Best Price 4/1

13:30 – Supreme Novices Hurdle (Pundit: Dean Kilbryde)
Alvisio Ville was an impressive five length winner on his racecourse debut at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. He could only manage 3rd when last seen in February but still finished ahead of some talented hurdlers and was never really asked a question by AP McCoy after turning the final bend. In my opinion that looked like a warm up for this race and he should turn up here in peak condition.
Alvisio Ville (E/W) – Best Price 16/1

14:05 – Arkle Chase (Pundit: Chris Roke)
My selection for this is Josses Hill, He won at Doncaster on his second time of asking over fences back in January and even though he was beaten last time out at Kempton that race shouldn’t reflect his form over this distance as that race at was over further. He should come on again with the schooling the team has put him through with the run up to this race and even though his jumping over fences can look sketchy at times the engine he has under him should guarantee a big shot at the places.
Josses Hill (E/W) – Best Price 12/1

16:40 – Toby Balding National Hunt Chase (Pundit: Ed Leahy)
I really hope that connections decide to run Don Poli in the four miler rather than the RSA as stats are really against him in winning the RSA. If they decide to go four miler he would have to go very close as he is a classy horse on his day who stays all day and jumps well. With a few more firms now gone non runner no bet, he is a risk free bet if connections do decide to go the RSA route.
Don Poli (E/W) – Best Price 6/1

17:15 – Chaps Restaraunt Barbados Novices Chase (Pundit: Ed Leahy)
I really hope that my selection Thomas Crapper gets in to this race as he needs nine horses to come out as things stand. He ran a cracker to finish second in the Martin Pipe last year and has had a similar campaign over fences. Some of the form he has shown this season has been really good and it could see him have upwards of 20lbs in hand. Given his strong course form, he is sure to have a good say in proceedings.
Thomas Crapper (E/W) – Best Price 16/1

WEDNESDAY:
14:05 – RSA Chase (Pundit: David Smith)
Everything about the horses’s last run suggests that he is back to his best. The conditions at Navan were very soft and he still was going away at the finish. Bryan Cooper and connections were sweet on him afterwards and at 20/1 he could be huge each way value. He has won around here before and his known stamina is a big plus. He handles what will presumably be good ground and has mastered the hill, atmosphere and jumping around the track. He is in short, a very interesting contender.
Very Wood (E/W) – Best Price 20/1

 

THURSDAY:
14:40 – Ryanair Chase (Pundit: Chris Roke)
My selection for this is on the hope of the ground being Good/Soft as Cue Card seems to relish these conditions. he won this race two years ago by nine lengths and unfortunately missed it last year due to injury, even though he’s only won once since then three of them occasions he has been beaten by the great Silviniaco Conti.
He should relish the return to this distance as this does seem the distance the Tizzard family gets the best out of him so his previous races can be overlooked.
Cue Card (WIN) – Best Price 6/1

14:40 – Ryanair Chase (Pundit: David Smith)
There was a huge amount to like about the horse’s run around Ascot the last day and the more aggressive nature of the ride seemed to suit the horse. He was 100/1 the last time he ran at the festival behind Hurricane Fly when unseating the rider but Alan King’s charge looked in fine fettle in easily disposing of some very nice types in Ballycasey, Ptit Zigg (who did fall tbf) and Ma Filleule at Ascot. The lack of experience and form around the course is the natural concern and whilst there have been plenty of those down the years who have gone on to win it is still an unknown. That said, he must be a huge shout for at least the each way money.
Balder Success (E/W) – Best Price 7/1

16:00 – Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate (Pundit: Chris Connolly)
Attaglance bids to bounce back to form after a rather disappointing campaign, he wouldn’t want soft ground however and a chance is worth taking at a venue he likes and on better ground. A most unlucky 2nd in last seasons Rewards For Racing Novice chase, he is taken to reward the EW faith at a current price of 20/1.
Attaglance (E/W) – Best Price 20/1

16:00 – Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate (Pundit: David Weldon)
Buywise was one of my main handicap fancies for last year and for this years Paddy Power Gold Cup. He has been well campaigned this having a belated season as a novice hurdler. He needs to get his jumping in order and the fact he travels so well into his races should see him at least placed.
Buywise (E/W) – Best Price 12/1

FRIDAY:
13:30 – Triumph Hurdle (Pundit: Dean Kilbryde)
Top Notch brings a 100% win record in to this race and has jumped impressively throughout his three career runs so far. He showed his battling qualities to win at Ascot in January and followed this up with what looked like an effortless victory at Haydock in February, quickening when asked without coming off the bridle. He has gone a little under the radar compared to the more high profile favourites of this race but may be the one to spring a surprise.
Top Notch (E/W) – Best Price 12/1

14:05 – Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle (Pundit: Rory Paddock)
A mammoth handicap is where my first antepost selection pops up as I wait until the final day for both of my antepost picks. I think course form around Cheltenham is something money can’t buy and those with decent form around the Gloucestershire track stands for a hell of a lot.
Despite my selection being nine years old it is very lightly raced after only ever stepping onto the course a total of twelve times. It is easy to have forgotten this horse is a former Champion Bumper winner and seems to do well in big fields.
The horse in question is the Philip Hobbs trained Cheltenian who could go well considering it’s raced less frequently than most of its rivals this year and looks to be a decent each way price.
Cheltenian (E/W) – Best Price 20/1

16:40 – Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle (Pundit: David Weldon)
Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle
In the Martin Pipe Conditional Hurdle there is an interesting horse there hasn’t been much talk around. Willie Mullins and Gigginstown have a great record in this race with two wins in the last four years with Don Poli and Sir Des Champs. Mckinley is a live contender here and has actually been dropped in rating from 141 in Ireland to 138 in the UK. This seems strange given most other horses heading from Ireland have been raised. This is a grade one race winner and while some may question that form he is clearly a talented horse and looks well in. At 16/1 best price he looks to have an excellent chance.
McKinley (E/W) – Best Price 20/1

17:15 – Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase (Pundit: Rory Paddock)
My final selection comes in the final race of the festival. With this going to be AP McCoys last festival it’s likely that with Jonjo O’Neill only having one entered into this it’ll be AP on board. What a way to go out if AP’s last ever festival ride is a winner and I think he might just do it. Eastlake is the likely mount for the champ and with a relitively unlucky sixth at the festival last year I think it can do better this time around. An impressive third in the Topham Chase at Aintree show’s there’s no issues around it’s jumping and a course and distance win to boot is another great boost to its chances. It finds itself low enough in the weights and ran creditibly when third last time out.
The champion jockey has a cracking record on the horse with seven wins, three seconds and three thirds out of seventeen rides and despite the horse raining from top connections it seems to have gone un-noticed and could be a great way to end the festival.
Eastlake (E/W) – Best Price 18/1

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