Harry Allwood looks ahead to the 2021 Cheltenham Festival and picks out his five best bets across the four days.
It is fair to say the Cheltenham Festival will not quite be the same this year, but let’s be thankful racing is still going ahead during these difficult times, and we have some tremendous action to look forward to over the four days.
There appears to be an abundance of ‘bankers’ of the week for favourite backers to choose from this year, with Shishkin, Envoi Allen, Monkfish and Chacun Pour Soi all odds-on for Cheltenham Festival glory, and bookmakers will be running for cover should those four oblige.
For what it’s worth, I think Monkfish is the most solid out of the quartet, and it is hard to see last year’s Albert Bartlett winner getting beat in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (Wednesday) having looked a potential superstar in his first three starts over fences.
Don’t forget, all 28 races will be shown live on Racing TV, and the Cheltenham Festival microsite on racingtv.com, which includes tips, stats and trends for every race, stable tours plus much more, is worth a visit.
Below are my five best bets for this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and I see no reason why all five will not go close.
Trainer: Henry de Bromhead. Best odds: 3-1.
Honeysuckle was a hugely impressive winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle on her latest start
It was hard not to be impressed with Honeysuckle’s victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and a reproduction of that performance is likely to see her prove hard to beat here.
I don’t think she was the finished article last season, despite winning three grade ones, as her jumping was not as slick as it has been this season, and she has appeared to settle better during her races.
Her career-best effort last time out is arguably the strongest piece of form on offer this season, and although she was underwhelming when defeating Ronald Pump by a diminishing margin on her seasonal debut, connections made it clear she was in need of the run having not been in action since March.
I expect her to be ridden handy and make this a real test, just like she did in the Irish Champion Hurdle, which will bring her stamina into play as we know she stays further than two miles. She will also receive a 7lb mares’ allowance, which is another plus.
Nicky Henderson has said reigning champion hurdler Epatante suffered with a back problem when she was defeated in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day. The Seven Barrows handler is confident that issue is now sorted, but she needs to bounce back at Cheltenham, and with Honeysuckle and Goshen among her rivals, this year’s renewal looks a stronger contest.
The latter-named horse returned to form in style in the Kingwell Hurdle, but I am not certain his rivals showed their best form on that occasion; Song For Someone was never travelling that well in the testing conditions, and Navajo Pass faded quickly once headed.
Gary Moore’s stable star has not faced two mares in the same calibre as Honeysuckle and Epatante yet, either, and the selection is the one to beat on the form of her latest start.
Trainer: Henry de Bromhead. Best odds: 4-1.
Watch how Bob Olinger scored at Naas last time out
The vibes from Bob Olinger’s connections have been strong this season, and their confidence has been backed up by his performances on the track, with their exciting youngster producing a good speed figure when successful in the Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle last time out.
His jumping appeared to improve once the pace quickened in that Grade One contest, and he hit the line strong suggesting the extra furlong in the Ballymore will suit.
A winner of his sole start in a point-to-point, the six-year-old was good enough to finish a length behind Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow on his hurdling debut over two miles, despite connections believing he is a three-mile chaser in the making.
He is unproven at Cheltenham, but so are the other leading protagonists, and Bob Olinger handled the undulations well at Naas which bodes well for him acting around Prestbury Park.
The selection does meet some other potential stars here, most notably Gaillard Du Mesnil who scored at the highest level last time out.
However, Bob Olinger looked to win a stronger Grade One in January, with the runner-up Blue Lord franking the form behind Appreciate It next time out.
When Paul Nicholls says a horse "is as good as Denman at this stage", you have to take note, and it is no surprise Bravemansgame has been compared to the 2008 Gold Cup winner following his impressive victory in the Challow Novices' Hurdle last time out.
That did not look the strongest contest though, despite the runner-up winning a Grade Two, albeit a weak one, on his previous start, and I think Bravemansgame may not have the pace that Bob Olinger or Gaillard Du Mesnil possess.
Race: Ryanair Chase (Thursday)
Trainer: Harry Whittington. Best odds: 10-1.
Watch a full replay of last year's Ryanair Chase
Saint Calvados looked an unlucky loser in the Ryanair Chase 12 months ago, and I am hoping connections give him the opportunity to go one better this year, rather than taking their chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Harry Whittington’s stable star travelled powerfully throughout the race and was forced to switch in last year’s contest plus was gaining on Min towards the line.
The eight-year-old caught the eye behind Frodon when fourth in the King George on his seasonal debut, where he travelled like the best horse in the race, before lack of stamina and race fitness took its toll in the closing stages.
The Cotswold Chase was meant to be a fact-finding mission for connections as to whether Saint Calvados would stay the Gold Cup trip, but his stamina failed to be tested after unseating his rider down the back straight.
I think that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise though, as he looks tailor-made for the Ryanair Chase, and last year’s renewal looked a strong one.
Harry Whittington has begun to hit form having failed to record a winner in December and January, and operated at a strike-rate of 22 per cent in February.
Trainer: Fergal O’Brien. Best odds: 14-1.
Paddy Brennan spoke glowingly of Alaphilippe after his victory at Haydock
One that looks overpriced in this year's Albert Bartlett is Alaphilippe, and it is worth chancing Fergal O’Brien’s charge who shaped like a thorough stayer on his first three starts over hurdles plus relished the step up to three miles when a 14-length winner at Haydock last time out.
The complex of that Grade Two contest changed when the leader fell three out, but Alaphilippe was just about to mount his challenge, and won with plenty to spare.
Paddy Brennan spoke glowingly on Racing TV when reflcting on Alaphilippe's easy victory, and believes his mount will be well suited to the Albert Bartlett.
"He excites me," said Brennan. "We kept him for a big race to go three miles in, and he's impressed me, very much so.
"We're not in control of the Irish horses, they look exceptional, but I wouldn't swap him for anything in the UK.
"This lad races behind the bridle, he'll come home and will love the track. It's exciting."
The only blip for Alaphilippe this season was when he finished a narrow second over an inadequate trip and track at Taunton. However, he was conceding 4lb to the winner on that occasion, and pulled over four lengths clear of the third, who finished third in the Tolworth on his previous start, plus was conceding almost a stone to that rival.
A career best will be needed, but Alaphilippe is on the upgrade, and is worth supporting each-way at the prices.
Trainer: Willie Mullins. Best odds: 3-1.
Watch a full replay of Al Boum Photo's victory in last year's WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup
Al Boum Photo may have been workmanlike when successful on his seasonal return in the Savills New Year's Day Chase in January, but he still defeated 156-rated Acapella Bourgeois by 19 lengths on ground that was softer than he encountered in the previous two years, and Willie Mullins was surprised at how much his star chaser needed the outing that day.
Having just one prep run in that Tramore contest ahead of the Gold Cup worked in 2019, and 2020, and I see no reason why it won't again this year.
I thought Al Boum Photo did well to win last year's Gold Cup given Paul Townend was forced to take up the running after jumping the fifth last, and he was being pestered for the lead thereafter, so it is probably testament to Al Boum Photo’s ability that he fended off all challengers.
Although some of those in behind have let the form down since, they had all produced a high level of form going into the race, and I expect the Gold Cup test may have taken its toll on a few.
The majority of Al Boum Photo's rivals in this year's Gold Cup all have questions marks to answer, and it is hard to side against him becoming the first horse since Best Mate to win three Gold Cups. The only negative is his price, but nothing stands out at bigger odds, and with Native River and Frodon in the field, the likelihood of a fast pace is certain to suit.
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