Cheltenham Day One: The Champion Hurdle Puzzle

- -

Cheltenham is back. We are back. A year older. Actually, I feel 18 years older as my first was 2002, living in the Hunter’s Lodge at the top of the hill, seeing things I thought I’d never see. Best Mate. Moscow Flyer. Hors La Loi upset an upsetting Champion Hurdle. Istabraq’s farewell. Sadly, Valiramix as well. Life would never be the same.

Over the years, we’ve ridden the highs and lows that only National Hunt racing can deliver. The epic performances by heroes long gone, the magical ability of horses to carry us places we didn’t know we could go. Kauto. Denman. Long Run. Sprinter. Moscow. Best Mate. Faugheen. Hurricane Fly. Tiger Roll. Tully East. Wichita. Un De Sceaux. Go Ballistic. Tikram. Valdez, the thrill of seeing our silks, the thrill of turning into the stretch with a palpable chance in the Arkle. So many others, so many moments strung together in the tapestry that is Cheltenham. Each one of us has a different tapestry, the likes of Valdez, Tiger Roll, Tully East and Tikram adorning mine, while yours looks similar, but quite different, your heroes, your moments weaved into your tapestry.

I’ve missed one year since my first. I feel lucky to be here. Lucky to relish in a sport that has captivated me, my friends, my world. This year won’t be any different. Alastair Down capturing it to perfection way back in 2002 (I still have Racing Posts from that Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) and again in today’s Racing Post. Nobody spins the Cheltenham magic like Alastair Down.

The master finishes with…

And another verse reads, ‘Be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet’. Well, for all of us who tread our way there this week our feet will indeed be jubilant and our souls will undoubtedly answer in our many ways.

For 45 years this has been the pilgrimage that faith in the marvellous compels me to undertake. May it ever be thus with you all. Welcome friends, fans and fellow travellers to the four days that matter and elevate us all.

Yes, we’ll be elevated this week. Good luck. Godspeed.

Overnight rain has guaranteed proper National Hunt soft ground.

Race 1. 1:30 UK. Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £125,000. 2 miles, 87 yards.

The roar will go up and out over Cleeve Hill as 16 novices flash away from the starter’s tape. Nicky Henderson will be watching three, Shishkin, Chantry House and Allart, any could win. Willie Mullins and Paul Townend can release the pressure valve with a win from Asterion Forlonge. Gordon Elliott unleashes Abacadabras under the coolest of them all, Davy Russell. Fiddlerontheroof looked a burgeoning star when he won at Sandown in January.

The Picks: Fiddlerontheroof, Chantry House, Allart.

Race 2. 2:10. Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. £175,000. 1 mile, 7 furlongs, 199 yards.

Not 2 miles. It’s 1 mile, 7 furlongs, 199 yards. Hey, it might matter. Novice chasers, next year’s Queen Mother horses put their jumping and their galloping to the sword.

My strongest opinion of the day, Fakir D’oudairies should avenge a loss to Notebook in their most recent meeting. If he wins, the trip is free.

The Picks: Fakir D’oudaries, Rouge Vif, Notebook.

Race 3. 2:50. Ultima Handicap Chase. Grade 3. £110,000. 3 miles, 1 furlong.

We went to a Cheltenham Preview at a local wine bar to listen to trainer Kim Bailey and his apprentice jockey Chester Williams last night. Bailey has three live chances today, although, he downplayed all of them. Read him here. Vinndication could, could, solidify Bailey’s resurrection from the heights of Master Oats and Alderbrook, through the depths of new yards and bad years and back to the top. Root for Vinndication. If you want a bomb, you could do worse than Big River.

The Picks: Vinndication, The Conditional, Big River.

Race 4. 3:30. The Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy. Grade 1. £470,250. 2 miles, 87 yards.

The feature of the first day has been ridiculed for being subpar. Harsh words. Sure, there might not be a Hurricane Fly or Istabraq in here but a solid group of Grade 1 stakes horses line up and square off. Epatante is the favorite but she still needs to prove that she can thrive in the heat of the Cheltenham battle. Last year, she wilted.

The Picks: Coeur Sublime, Silver Streak, Epatante.

Race 5. 4:10. Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £120,000. 2 miles, 3 furlongs, 200 yards.

The David Nicholson mares hurdle can lack the firepower of some of the Cheltenham races over the years but not this version, as Benie Des Dieux clashes with Honeysuckle. The former was on her way to win last year when crashing at the last hurdle with Ruby Walsh. He’s gone, she’s back. That fall is the only blip in a nine-race parade since joining Willie Mullins. Some think Honeysuckle is in the wrong race and would win the Champion Hurdle. She’s beaten the boys all season, hasn’t lost a race, ever. Epic clash.

The Picks: Honeysuckle, Benie Des Dieux, Stomy Ireland.

Race 6. 4:50. The Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase. £70,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 44 yards.

Richard Johnson, the four-time champion and 16-time runner-up (all to A.P. McCoy) has battled back from a broken arm to be here. The wily veteran wins more races at other places but nobody deserves a Cheltenham winner more than Johnson, a never-say-die hero. Perhaps, he salutes the faithful from atop Whatmore after this one.

The reborn Sean Flanagan has battled back from injury as well, he rides Daly Tiger.

The Picks: Espoire De Guye, Galvin, Champagne Court.

Race 7. 5:30. National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase. Grade 2. £125,000. 3 miles, 5 furlongs, 201 yards.

The finale. Up or down, surely you’ve enjoyed the day.

The Picks: Carefully Selected, The Hollow Ginge, Lord Du Mesnil.