by ANNIE DALE NEXT month a group of celebrities, royals, superstar trainers, jockeys and horse racing fans will don their finest threads and converge upon Cheltenham Racecourse. The 2018 Cheltenham Festival is the most prestigious meeting in the National Hunt calendar, featuring 14 Grade One races, and this year looks set to deliver another thriller. English trainers will bid to win back the Prestbury Cup that the Irish won in such style last year, and Nicky Henderson will be leading the charge. He has an extremely strong hand heading into the Festival, but so do Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins, so it should be a fantastic battle.
The main event is the Gold Cup on the final day, which sees the leading chasers battle it out over 3 miles 2½ furlongs, taking in 22 fences. It is the Blue Riband of jump racing and remains the most valuable non-handicap chase in Britain, with a prize purse of £625,000 this year. The very best horses will bid to join a roll of honour featuring legends like Arkle, Golden Miller, Best Mate, Cottage Rake, Kauto Star and Mill House.
Sizing John defied the odds to win last year’s renewal and completed a hat-trick of Gold Cups by also winning in Leopardstown and Punchestown. Trainer Jessica Harrington was rewarded by her shrewd decision to step him up in trip and he romped to victory. But he has not hit such impressive heights this season and was seventh of 12 in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, where he was well beaten by Road To Respect. Sizing John is the third favourite to defend his crown this year, behind Might Bite and last year’s Gold Cup runner-up Native River in the betting.
Heritage sports will have odds, make sure to review them when wagering and you will see that Might Bite stands clear out in front in the Gold Cup. He extended his winning run to five when he romped to victory in the Grade 1 King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and he is certainly the one to beat in this year’s Gold Cup. But favourites are rarely victorious in this race, and the deep field is studded with dangers, so it might pay to look at longer shots like Our Duke (14/1), Definitly Red (20/1) and Road To Respect (10/1).
Henderson saddles Might Bite and he also has the favourite in the second and third biggest races of the 2018 Cheltenham Festival. Buveur D’Air is the odds-on favourite to win the Champion Hurdle, priced at 1/2, ahead of Willie Mullins’ much-loved Faugheen at 5/1. Buveur D’Air won this race a year ago and has since taken his winning run to nine with a string of highly impressive performances, so he is looking invincible right now. Some might fancy Yorkhill each-way at 16/1 or Melon at 20/1, but right now it is hard to see anyone usurping Buveur D’Air.
Altior has been even more dominant, winning his 12th race in a row when he outstripped Politologue in the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange Chase on February 10. Again Mullins has the second favourite in Min, while another Mullins charge, Douvan, is third in the betting. Douvan has the quality to beat Altior, but he has suffered with bad injuries and is unlikely to make the race, while Min may lack the pace to keep up with Altior.
Harrington trains Supasundae, the favourite to win the Stayers’ Hurdle, who beat Faugheen in his last race. He is expected to battle it out with the impressive Sam Spinner for victory in that race. But the beauty of Cheltenham is that every race comes with a deep and intriguing field, and there is plenty of value to be had in backing the longer shots. Favourites only win 30% of the time, so it pays to study the form and seek out the outsiders that show the potential to improve.