Cheltenham Day 1: Great to be back

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Let the games begin. We are back at the Cheltenham Festival for the 15th time in 16 years (yes, I’m still lamenting that we missed last year). The greatest four days of racing in the world begin Tuesday.

This year’s Festival, sadly, has been marketed as much for the horses not here (Thistlecrack, Faugheen, Annie Power, Many Clouds, Sprinter Sacre…) as for the horses that are here. For now. That’s before the four days of spectacle and sport. After the four days, there will be new heroes worshiped, new moments savored, new memories made.

Race 1. 1:30. The Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £125,000. 2 miles.

Melon could put the bookies on the back foot early. The Irish raider has run once, won once. He was the talking horse before, talking horse after – a typical Willie Mullins crusher in the opener. Of course, Mullins, despite losing the Gigginstown horses launches Bunk Off Early, Cilaos Emery and Crack Home. The latter has a chance to squeeze the Melon (sorry, too easy).

The Picks: Ballyandy, Melon, Crack Mome.

Race 2. 2:10. The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. £175,000. 2 miles.

Altior was brilliant last year and he’ll be brilliant again this year. The Irish-bred won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year, switched to chasing and has been flawless in four starts, ripping to winning margins of 50, 6, 18 and 13 lengths. This one could be any of the four.

Bet a cold exacta of Altior over Charbel and a cold trifecta with Forest Bihan in third. It beats working for a living.

The Picks: Altior, Charbel, Forest Bihan.

Race 3. 2:50. The Ultima Handicap Chase. Grade 3. £105,000. 3 1/8 miles.

And so begins the Cheltenham handicap minefield. One of many, this one is like most of them, a wild affair with 24 runners and a 21-pound spread.

We’ve loved Henri Parry Morgan ever since he won two chases at big prices last year. Put a finger, hands, buckle your belt in your neck strap, he’s fallen or unseated on three of his last five chase starts. If he gets around, you’ll go from the yoke to the cashing counter.

The Picks: Henri Parry Morgan, Vintage Clouds, Theatre Guide.

Race 4. 3:30. The Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. £400,000. 2 miles.

The traditional Opening Day feature has been called many things this year – average, bad, abysmal and open to name a few. We wish we had an average, bad, abysmal or open horse to run in it.

It’s so open, Nicky Henderson and connections switched Buveur D’Air from chasing back to hurdling after the race lost last year’s winner Annie Power, Faugheen and other headliners this winter. It’s so open, David Pipe and connections decided to switch Moon Racer from the novice hurdle division. It’s so open, punters are touting The New One, a horse who hasn’t been able to win this in three tries.

I bet Yanworth in the bumper two years ago, no sense stepping off the ship now. He’s game and tough and is certainly better than average, bad, abysmal or open.

The Picks: Yanworth, Buveur D’Air, The New One.

Race 5. 4:10. OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (The David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle). Grade 1. £110,000. 2 1/2 miles.

Willie Mullins has won eight out of the nine renewals of this race and surely will win it again with a gun in one hand and a grenade in the other. Limini is 13/8 with Ruby Walsh and Vroum Vroum Mag is 9/4 with Paul Townend. How good is Limini? Well, Walsh takes off last year’s winner Vroum Vroum Mag to ride Limini, who was bandied about in Champion Hurdle conversations last week.

The Picks: Limini, Apple’s Jade, Colin’s Sister.

Race 6. 4:50. The JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. £120,000. 4 miles.

Take a moment and think about JT McNamara, paralyzed in a fall at Cheltenham in 2013, I’ll never forget laughing our way out of the course, just a bunch of racing fans after another day at the Festival, only to find out later, in the quiet ride of a car, about how bad the blow was to McNamara. The Irish amateur epitomized National Hunt racing, a sportsman doing what he loved. But for the grace of God…

The Picks: Tiger Roll, Arbre De Vie, Bigbadjohn.

Race 7. 5:30. Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase. Listed. £70,000. 2 1/2 miles.

Be careful of a deal that looks too good to be true, of black ice and of the handicap finale at Cheltenham. We actually like Tully East, who got there too soon last year.

The Picks: Tully East, Two Taffs, Mixboy.